Interview: Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams on channelling Levon Helm’s spirit

The importance of emotional and musical honesty and the story of The Royal Potato Family.

Americana last chatted with Larry and Teresa two years ago about their role in the ‘It Was The Music’ documentary which looked at the formative American music of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. They were an ideal framework for the documentary as between them they have played with such legends as Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Jorma Kaukonen, and Hot Tuna and worked with modern-day roots artists such as Greg Trooper and Roger Street Friedman. Larry has played sessions with everyone from Keith Richards, Solomon Burke, and  Betty LaVette to Donald Fagen, Phil Lesh, and Little Feat, and that doesn’t include his production work with such roots icons as David Bromberg and Kinky Friedman. Amongst all this activity, we shouldn’t forget that Larry and Teresa have their own career as recording and touring artists. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up over Zoom with Larry and Teresa to talk about them dusting the pandemic dust off and touring as a duo again in support of their new record ‘Live At Levon’s!’, which was recorded at Levon Helm’s The Barn in 2019.  Larry explains how his production work kept him busy during the pandemic, particularly as Teresa was away in Tennessee nursing her sick father. ‘Live At Levon’s!’ is probably the most representative of Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams records as an individual act featuring as it does a range of music both new and old, and gives listeners a sense of what their live show is all about, and gives clear evidence that Larry and Teresa’s years of working with Levon Helm has left a clear mark on their own music.  Finally, between fits of laughter, the pair shared the story of how a third-grade joke about a potato family influenced the naming of their current record label with the help of Bob Dylan.

How are you guys?

Larry Campbell (LC): We are fine, I’m at home in New York and Teresa is in Tennessee visiting her mother.

Teresa Williams (TW): I’ll be back in New York to get ready for our little tour, haha.

It is not such a little tour, is it?

LC: Yes, it is the most road work we will have done since the pandemic in early 2020.

Are you road-fit?

LC: No, haha. I’m really looking forward to the performing but after having had virtually two years of waking up in your own bed the allure of travel has sort of disappeared, haha, but we want to get out there and perform.

TW: I’m dusting off my vocal cords and the playing is great, haha.

What was it like revisiting your 2019 performance and readying it for a belated release, is it like picking up from where you were in 2019?

LC: We’ve started adding material we weren’t doing back then, some new songs, and our thing on the road starts evolving as we tour, we may change the show a little bit because of the songs we think of and the character of what we do will change as the tour progresses.

TW: And different audiences have their own personalities and that, of course, shapes things too, each audience has a different feel every night which is just part of it.

What are you looking particularly looking forward to Teresa?

The one-on-one with the audience, having it flow through you to the audience and then it coming right back to you. That magic moment between where they are sitting and you are standing. That is what it is all about, and what it has been about for as long as I can remember since I knew this is it for me, this is my life. I can still remember where I was standing at the distinct moment I knew that this was it, and this is why we do it. Recording is fun, it really is, but the purpose of recording is getting one-on-one with the person in the seat. Trying to find that truth, and then sharing it with them, is the most fun, it is miserable when you don’t achieve it, haha, but your goal as an artist is to find that truth and live in that spot and share it with them. And feel it together. It is pretty simple if you can get there, haha.

You have a live album now so you can share a performance with everybody, what was it like listening to a 2019 performance as you readied it for release?

LC: I loved hearing it because the last time I’d heard it was when we mixed it with Justin Guip over a year ago, and when you are mixing and producing you are so inside of it you lose perspective on the emotional impact of the music. You then put it away for a while and coming back to it you can have more objectivity about what you are hearing, and I’ve got to say I was pretty pleased, and I’m not blowing smoke here, and hearing Teresa singing ‘Darling Be Home Soon’ and singing the Loretta song on there, ‘Success’, and ‘Angel of Darkness’,  I knew it then when we performed it, I knew it when we mixed it, but to hear it now after such a while, to hear how she just owns these songs, taking it from when she is just learning these sons to where they become just a completely natural part of her. That is really evident to me after not listening to the album for a while.

The Loretta song takes on a slightly different significance now, and John Sebastien seems to have dropped off the radar a bit, particularly given the level of his musical achievements.

TW: When we launch into that song in a live setting, the audience response is just, you know, because our demographic know John Sebastian, and Larry in his introduction talks about John mesmerising the thousands of people at Woodstock when he had to pitch in for Tim Hardin and they just threw him on stage with a guitar in his full tie-dye regalia from head-to-toe, and the audience know who we are talking about and they respond in such a way I didn’t expect, they are so delighted to hear one of John’s special songs. He did a tour before the pandemic with a bluegrassy person, David Grisman I think, and they didn’t use any monitors on that tour and he just talked and played, it was certainly before the pandemic, haha.

You have a nice mix of old and new songs, plus interesting covers. Who selected the songs for the album?

LC: It was both of us, there were things that we perform but don’t have a recording of like ‘Big River’ and Teresa wanted to do the Loretta song, ‘Success’.

TW: We used to do a guitar festival, it was an annual thing at this time of year in Manhattan, and that is how I met Jorma Kaukonen, and the first guitar festival was the first time I did a Grateful Dead tune live. One of the festivals was curated by Jorma Kaukonen, and it was one night of Lefty Frizzell and one night of Loretta.

LC: Merle Haggard was another night.

TW: It was really fun to dive into those songs like you had permission to do what you wouldn’t normally do in a live show or a studio, and it was such fun. I did ‘Success’ with just Larry on pedal steel, and we had an excellent bass player, and it was magic, everything just came together, the atmosphere, everything. I’m not sure we recreated that magic on the record but I wanted to do it, and it isn’t my best vocal performance, it is full of warts and all that but I felt validated when a person we talked to told us it made his wife cry. I thought, success, haha, warts and all.

LC: We both threw songs at each other suggesting what to put on this record, and there are a few more that didn’t make the record that may come out at a different time.

TW: My only disappointing thing is that my foot is only ten inches from their foot because they are that close in Levon’s Barn it is like being with the audience in a living room, but due to some snafu-like stuff we couldn’t get the warmth of the audience on the record.

LC: The audience mics were going in and out, the power supplies to the audience mics were failing, so there are a couple of tracks where it is full-blown audience and you can hear it, and then a couple where they are not there.

TW: It is a little disappointing, but I can assure everyone the room was alive and well that night, haha.

How much of Levon’s spirit did you manage to capture on ‘Live At Levon’s!’?

TW: It is all there.

LC: It is all there, in that room especially. The thing that Teresa and I do, we honed it during those years we worked with Levon, and the most special thing of those years working with Levon over is I realised I never wanted to play music again without the pure motivation of the joy of making music, which is what we got every night when we played with Levon. After we lost Levon, and Teresa and I decided we would do this thing ourselves we retained that spirit because of what we all had together at that time. That spirit is never going to leave, any time we play anywhere we both go into this with the objective of reaching that spirit and joy in music making, and it is easiest to get it there when we are inside that barn because that is where we made it with him.

The Barn is still very much a going concern, isn’t it?

LC: Yes, they are thriving up there, there is music every week with different acts coming in and out, and we are going to be performing there again in April at the end of this tour we are coming up on. It was the appropriate place to end it and promote this record so we are going to be there.

Who is behind your record label, Royal Potato Family, and who thought up the name?

TW: This was our question when we had dinner with Kevin Calabro, it’s his label and he works with Marc Benevento, and that dinner was the first time I had the chance to have a good talk with him, though we had met at The Barn with the Levon shows. We said what you’ve just said, “What’s up with this name?”, haha. He told the story, and I can’t believe the full circle involved.

LC: This is where it comes from, right.  Kevin is telling us this story and something is ringing in the back of my head about the whole thing and it starts with a joke. The Royal Potato Family is made up of  the King Idaho Potato, the Queen Russet Potato, and Princess Sweet Potato, and they are sitting around having dinner one night and Princess Sweet Potato says to her parents “I’ve got to tell you something, I’m in love and I’m getting married.”, and King Idaho Potato says, “That’s great, are you marring a Royal Idaho Potato?”. The Princess goes “No.”, and the King asks “Are you marrying a Royal Russet Potato?.”, and the Princess says “No.”, and the King asks “Are you marrying a Royal Sweet Potato?”, and the Princess says “No.”. The King then asks “What are you marrying?”, and the Princess says, “I’m going to marry Walter Cronkite”. Her father just explodes, “I’m a Royal Idaho Potato, your mother is a Royal Russet Potato, you are a Royal Sweet Potato, I’m not having you marry a commentator.”, haha.

So Kevin is telling us this, and I knew this joke because I learnt it in third-grade from my friend Andrew Rosenthal, and Kevin told us that someone he and Marco knew had been told this joke by Bob Dylan. I then realised I’d told Bob Dylan this joke, it was some years ago and we were riding through California and I’m on the band bus and Bob is on his bus, and our bus broke down so we all ended up getting on Bob’s bus to finish the ride. We were playing cards and drinking and stuff, and we got into a bad joke tell-off, and nobody can beat Bob at this, that’s for sure, but that is when I told him this joke. He may have known it before I told it to him, but I distinctly remember telling him this joke and it is kind of a full-circle thing that we are on this label now, haha.

TW: I mean we were at home going, the name is Royal Potato Family Records, we know Marco’s out there, but really, haha?

It will certainly get some interest, you can’t ignore it. Have you managed to keep the same backing band together from 2019 for the 2023 tour?

LC: Jesse Murphy our bass player from back then has moved way up north in the state and he’s involved with other stuff now, and Brandon Morrison is our bass player now. We miss Jesse but Brandon is fantastic, but most of this tour coming up is going to be Teresa and me as a duo until we get to the Cayamo Cruise and the guys will join us there, and there are a few more dates after that that they will be playing also.

TW: Cayamo is like the americana singer-songwriter cruise. It is a real listening audience, and the audience complains there is so much music they can’t get to all the shows, you have to plan like a festival, haha.

From what I’ve seen Larry has been as busy as ever despite the pandemic. How easy was it to keep your own career going?

LC: Other than nearly killing me, this pandemic has been sort of a little fortuitous because when I got healthy again I was able to keep working as a producer, and Teresa was able to stay with her dad as he was travelling his off-ramp with Alzheimer’s. She was able to be there to help him through it and also be there when he eventually passed on, and I was able to be there as often as I could. This was a really important time for Teresa to be with him, it would have been much more complicated if we had stuck with our normal touring schedule.

TW: I would have quit because I had to be home, and I’m just being funny, but I was thinking am I living in a parallel universe where this pandemic is only happening to me because I had prayed that I could be off the road to be with my father and family. Seriously, I didn’t want to upset the apple cart because there are several people involved when you put a tour together, it’s not just you calling in sick that week. I’ve been down here in Tennessee for the better part of two and a half years I guess. It has been the most profound experience of my life and I wouldn’t take anything for it. I don’t just mean him passing, but the whole thing when we were able to keep him at home, and we had hospice for most of the last year and we got to the point where we had to have help, and I wanted to be that help rather than a stranger. It was deep, yes deep.

How do you decide what production work to do?

LC: I get approached to do a lot of stuff, and the main requirement is that I hear something that moves me, and I will then meet the artist unless it is someone I know, to see if we have a chemistry. I did an album for a German artist, Marius Müller-Westernhagen, he sings in German but he has been a huge pop star in Germany and German-speaking countries, and he has been a rock’n’roll star and an actor, but even though he sings in German there is something authentic about his music and the way he presents himself. I read the English translation of his lyrics and I love what he is saying, even if it is not as poetic in English, but it moves me, and his singing and songs move me, so I agreed to do that.  Then there is a guy we know, Roger Street Friedman, and I’d done his last record and he came to me with these songs that were really well written, and he is a great singer, so it was OK, I’m doing this, and there has been a few more over the period. That is the criteria when I hear the songs and meet them and get a feel for their personality, and I can feel they are putting who they are into their material. That stirs my creativity and inspires my arrangements for this material.

You’ve done quite a bit of work with David Bromberg when he restarted his career.

LC: Yes, that is a perfect example. I’ve known him for years, and he was one of the first guys back then to just blur the genre lines, he could play blues, country, bluegrass, rock’n’roll, and folk music. He would just play stuff that moved him, and do it with such authenticity, he is a big Jewish guy from Brooklyn, not a black guy from the South who plays the blues but when he does he means it when he plays it, he is not a cotton farmer from Tennessee but he means it when he plays country music. He is authentic in his inauthenticity and it just comes across, and some of my most rewarding experiences as a producer have been working with him, as well as Jorma Kaukonen and the Hot Tuna guys, and the list can go on.

When Larry’s producing Teresa, are you there as a vocalist or do you make your own calls?

TW: No, I think the producing is a fallback when I have to be back in Tennessee, haha, it is Larry’s way to keep working and my out when I need to be home. I harass him to get me home all the time when I need to be and this way he keeps busy so we are both happy, haha.

LC: I do enlist Teresa to sing on some of these records when I can’t think of anyone more appropriate

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

LC: I’m obsessed with William Bolcom, a pianist who has composed these modern piano rags and I’ve just started listening to the stuff, and I’m trying to transcribe them for guitar, and it is chewing me up, haha. There is also a great record that is coming out by Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams called ‘Live At Levon’s!’, it is just brilliant what more can I say, haha.

Have you been listening to anything, particularly Teresa?

TW: I’m at my mother’s and it is the same as when I was a kid, and over here we have RFD-TV, which is basically the farmer’s channel, and on Saturday night they run all these shows that were on when I was growing up and we used to quit our chores early, get cleaned up so we can see the Saturday night music shows. My mother knows the entire schedule for all the shows, and she does the same thing quitting her stuff early so she can watch the shows starting about four o’clock on Saturday afternoon, and any other night they are on, and Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are her nights. As we say, she is eat up with it, haha, the same as she and daddy were when I was growing up. The Wilburn Brothers Show, and The Porter Wagoner Show, basically the early stars of the Opry and they are priceless. And then the Saturday night is closed out with Daniel O’Donnell, Wee Daniel, who I think is a big star over there.

He certainly has his audience.

LC: Very diplomatic, haha.

TW: So you’ve got all this on a Saturday night, and sometimes she will watch poker on a Saturday night so it is all over the place. I love it that she still loves it, it still turns her on. My dad and she had so much in common, like Larry and I, that they saw their music eye to eye. She will still sit down at the piano and spontaneously play her church songs. Marty Stuart’s show is on Saturday nights, and they had Bobby Bare on that show was just excellent, and the artists they have on that show are just amazing, he had George Jones on when George Jones was still alive, amazing.

I’ve heard a rumour you may be coming to the UK in 2023, is that true?

TW: From your mouth to God’s ears, I don’t know why but throughout the pandemic I’ve just had a yen to be back over there.

LC: There are some things in the works at the moment, but it’s still in the embryonic stage, but if we get the chance to be there we will be over for sure.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

TW: I just hope we get to see you soon.

LC: Yes, I Hope to be over soon. Every time we’ve been over it has been so warm and welcoming, and we want to thank you all for that. To feel our music personally, and American music generally,  to be appreciated by your fellow countrymen and others in Europe is a wonderful feeling. That we can connect our culture to your culture through this bridge of music is a wonderful thing.

TW: That’s another full circle for you.

LC: It is the British and Celtic roots that grew here in America that became what we are doing right now.

TW: And the old story of it going back over there and the British Invasion bringing it back to us is just one continuous circle, it is just great. It was you guys who reminded us what was great about our musical culture, so thank you.

LC: If it hadn’t been for The Beatles when I was a kid I wouldn’t have heard of Chuck Berry or Buck Owens, the doors they blew open for me and most of the musicians of my generation can not be overstated, and The Rolling Stones.

TW: The Stones’ deep dive into my area where I am in West Tennessee was just so amazing.

Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams’ ‘Live At Levon’s!’ is out now on Royal Potato Family Records.

About Martin Johnson 399 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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