He grew up surrounded by the cosmopolitan sounds of New York: rock, pop, country, blues and jazz. Her music was native to west Tennessee: bluegrass, country, gospel and blues.
Yet, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams discovered that together, their music is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a journey that began when they met more than 30 years ago, when Campbell’s North met Williams’ South – and a career was born.
“I was doing the Marlboro Country Music Contest,” recalls Williams by phone from the home she and Campbell share in Woodstock, N.Y.
“I needed a band, and a friend put the band together. I walked into rehearsal and Larry was playing pedal steel. I had some Hank Williams in the set. Larry was inside the music.
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“I saw him that night at the gig – really saw him. And it was all over.”
Through their partnership in marriage and music, the duo, who will play Feb. 22 at the Cat’s Cradle Back Room, has earned acclaim as among the most celebrated artists in the Americana fold. Campbell served as a member of Bob Dylan’s road band, displaying talents on a multitude of stringed instruments.
As a couple, they have performed together with such luminaries as Little Feat, Phil Lesh and Friends, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady.
They were band mates in the late Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles. Campbell produced Helm’s Grammy-winning CDs, “Dirt Farmer” and “Electric Dirt,” and served as the Rambles music director.
When throat cancer claimed Helm in 2012, Campbell and Williams decided it was time to set out on a musical journey of their own. Their self-titled debut CD was released to critical praise in 2015. Last year’s follow-up, “Contraband Love,” is more introspective, illuminating challenging aspects of relationships. Three of the Campbell-penned songs reveal the darkness and struggles of addiction.
“It’s not like I sat down to write a song about addiction,” Campbell says. “Teresa has a theory that we were watching close friends, and the children of close friends over the last couple of years really struggling with this problem. And this subconsciously brought up my own experiences years ago. It seems like that was swimming around in my subconscious, and that came out in these songs.”
Campbell points to their marriage as the catalyst for his commitment to songwriting. He and Williams combine their talents in much the same way as Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil or Felice and Beaudleaux Bryant.
“When I’m writing, I always start with a melody,” Campbell says. “The melody comes to me first. Then, I have to think about something lyrically to write about. Maybe a phrase will come to me that fits the melody ... and that will lead to some spark of an idea.”
“I went to school for theater,” adds Williams. “I come from the land of storytelling. It was a big form of entertainment for the men and women to sit around and tell tall tales. To me, songs are telling stories.
“I hear the lyrics first, and Larry hears the music first. We’re a good team that way. I do love stories and I have to think that’s what drew me to acting. My adviser told me I had to go to New York if I wanted to do that.”
While Williams was born into a musical family in the deep South, Campbell was immersed in the musical interests of his parents. One of Campbell’s closest friends was Bob Thiele Jr., son of the music industry great who married singer Teresa Brewer, produced BB King, and wrote “What a Wonderful World” for Louis Armstrong.
That connection opened the door for Campbell to indulge his musical passions. He took the key, walked through the door, and never looked back.
“When I was about 12, I started going to Fillmore East regularly,” Campbell said. “Bob Jr. and I would go to all these great concerts and events. So that’s where the seeds were planted. My mother’s record collection was ridiculous. She had records by Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family and the Weavers. Whenever I’d hear that stuff being played, it would send me to a place nothing else did.”
As for many of his generation, the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 196, which Campbell refers to as the “Big Bang,” was influential.
“But from there, my exposure to music was endless,” he said. “Around 1968, the Byrds did ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo.’ And I heard the Burrito Brothers and Poco – this sort of melding of country, folk and rock music. it was irresistible to me. I sort of followed that path back to the roots of it. And I became completely dedicated to the music that came from south of the Mason-Dixon Line.”
Who: Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 22.
Where: Cat’s Cradle Back Room, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro.
Info: 919-967-9053 or catscradle.com/events