Larry Campbell played guitar alongside Bob Dylan for seven years. He's worked with B.B. King and Jorma Kaukonen, too, Paul Simon and Cyndi Lauper.
But in 2012, Campbell and his wife, the singer Teresa Williams, emerged from perhaps the most professionally and personally enriching period of their career, when The Band's Levon Helm died in New York. For eight years, the couple enjoyed an onstage seat for Helm's victory lap. They toured and recorded with his Midnight Ramble Band and became part of the famed Midnight Ramble Sessions the drummer hosted in "The Barn" at his Woodstock home. When Campbell delivered Helm's eulogy, he spoke of the joys—of playing, of sharing, of camaraderie, of telling the truth—Helm brought to everything he did.
"He was incapable," Campbell said, "of having a false musical moment."
Released in late June, the couple's self-titled debut carries on in Helm's spirit. For the Campbell-penned "Did You Love Me At All," Williams delivers the same kind of raw, simplistic and poignant vocals as Helm, tapping a deep Southern drawl to counter the sadness of love and loss with the hope of redemption and resiliency. And with help from Helm's daughter, Amy, Campbell and Williams deliver a stirring rendition of the Grateful Dead classic, "Attics of My Life."
We spoke with the pair about their past with Helm, their future with his legacy and their long-awaited debut.
INDY: Why have you just now released your first album as a duo?
TERESA WILLIAMS: This is the first chance we had.
LARRY CAMPBELL: The idea for this had been 10 years in the making. I left Dylan's band at the end of 2004, and Teresa and I both did a lot of assessing about what we wanted to be doing. We'd sing together for the pleasure but without any plan or goal in mind. After I left Bob's band, we ended up doing a couple of low-key shows.
TW: That's how we got to Levon, too, because Amy Helm saw us sing together. Larry had already worked with her, but then she saw us together and brought me up when they were doing Dirt Farmer and to sub some for her at the Midnight Rambles.
LC: It was really through those years with Levon that we developed what we do now. At the time, we were very busy working with other people—touring with Phil Lesh, Hot Tuna, Little Feat. During the Electric Dirt sessions around 2009, we put our foot in the water and did a couple of tracks with Levon on drums. Soon after Levon died, we managed to force ourselves to put more time into this.
TW: It was time-consuming to be in what I called "The Levon Orbit."
INDY: You cut "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" for the record, as you'd performed it often with The Levon Helm Band. But what prompted you to include "Attics of My Life" as the closer?
LC: Early on in the Rambles, we were part of the American Beauty project in New York. There were a bunch of different acts doing songs from that record. I had always loved "Attics of My Life," and I wanted to try and distill it down to a three-part harmony. As the Rambles progressed, I felt that we needed a moment in the show where everything broke down to that intimacy. We kicked it around with Amy, and it just clicked. It became a highlight. Levon loved it, and he loved the fact he got a seven-minute break, too.
TW: It has a lot of meaning for us. We did it at Larry's mother's memorial, and Phil Lesh sat in with us. We also did it at Levon's memorial and also for Phil's longtime road manager's memorial. The Dead closed with it at their reunion show a few days ago, too.
INDY: In an interview with NPR, Teresa described playing at The Barn, where Levon hosted those Midnight Rambles, as a "music utopia." What made it that?
TW: All of us who played there would agree. For Levon, it's shorthand to say he was "True North," musically. He just kept things honest. He was there just for the music. When he lost his voice and we were really having to do most of the singing and he was drumming, you could feel him growing more frail. That last night we played with him at Tarrytown Music Hall, he sat in the dressing room, kind of quiet. He had his head down. All the sudden, he looked up apropos of nothing and said, "All I ask for are just those two hours." He wanted to play so badly and sing so badly. Larry had been singing "When I Go Away" when Levon had begun losing his voice again. Larry started the song with a phrase, and Levon just took over and sang the rest.
LC: It was a miraculous and beautiful moment.
INDY: It's been three years since Levon died. What do you miss the most?
TW: Aside from the music, we would go sit by the fire at his house on Sunday nights, the way I used to do with my relatives growing up. It was just Levon, his wife Sandy, and me and Larry. We'd just sit there and trade stories—just like the way they do down south, trying to top each other's stories from back home and then Larry and Levon with their Dylan stories. That was a big loss for me, having a piece of home in the north.
LC: We really felt connected to something when we had that leisure time with Levon and Sandy, a really personal family connection. To use Teresa's phrase "music utopia," when we played with Levon, it was an opportunity to be everything you ever wanted to be as a musician—playing great songs, great music with great musicians, a great environment with an audience that always made you feel like they were a part of what you were doing. I've vowed that's how I always want to make music—open, free and inclusive.
TW: I grew up with the music being like that, because there was no music business agenda. People just played and sang for the love of music. At the churches where I grew up, there was no air conditioning in those country churches. It felt a lot like being at The Barn, because in the summer, it'd be hot as Hades when the crowds came. It just reminded me of that, just the joy of music and making a joyful noise.
INDY: Are there plans to put out any more recordings from the Rambles?
LC: No plans have been discussed, but I'm sure it's on everyone's mind. Amy has her record coming out. Teresa and I are occupied with this. There are a lot of shows in the vault. When things calm down for both Amy and Teresa and I, we'd all be anxious to see what we can release. The more Levon that's out there, the better the world is gonna be.
This article appeared in print with the headline "By the time we got to Woodstock"