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Live from Musical Nirvana 

Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams will perform at Richmond Music Hall in support of their new album, “Live at Levon’s!”

click to enlarge Singer and guitarist Teresa Williams (Emmylou Harris, Mavis Staples, Midnight Ramble Band) and her husband, multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Midnight Ramble Band) will be performing  at the Richmond Music Hall on Friday, Feb. 3.

Singer and guitarist Teresa Williams (Emmylou Harris, Mavis Staples, Midnight Ramble Band) and her husband, multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Midnight Ramble Band) will be performing at the Richmond Music Hall on Friday, Feb. 3.

“Musical nirvana.”

That’s how Larry Campbell, multi-instrumentalist, producer and longtime music director of Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble concerts, describes what it was like to organize and play the series of shows at Helm’s famed Barn in Woodstock, New York. The phrase was originally coined by his wife, singer and guitarist Teresa Williams, who played her own central role as legendary guests — from John Prine to Allen Toussaint and Kris Kristofferson — joined in.

“This was the culmination of everything I ever wanted to be and experience as a musician,” Campbell says. “The most important person in my life — we’re working together, we have an opportunity to do stuff that we created, we’re in an environment where we’re sharing this creative thing with other people we want to be around, we’re with great musicians, and it’s all about the joy of making good music.”

Helm passed away in 2012, and Campbell and Williams’ days in the Midnight Ramble Band may be over, but they’re set to release a new album that recaptures and spreads the joy they experienced during that run, entitled “Live at Levon’s!” Its dozen tracks were recorded over the course of two nights in September 2019 in front of an enthused — and intimately situated — audience. “They were right there a foot away from you,” Williams says. “That’s the way it is at the Barn.”

“The magic in that room was palpable,” Campbell says. “Any time we played that room, [in] the years with Levon or any other time we’d been there… You feel like, ‘We’re all in this thing together.’”

Success together and apart

Being together is something Williams and Campbell don’t take for granted, as individual successes have often kept them apart. In addition to performing with some of music’s biggest names, including Emmylou Harris and Mavis Staples, Williams played Sarah Carter in the Carter Family-focused musical, “Keep On the Sunny Side.” Campbell’s travels as a go-to guitarist have been as extensive as they come; he spent many months on the road supporting stars like Cyndi Lauper, Rosanne Cash and kd lang. Then in 1997, he started an eight-year stint as part of Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour. For many Dylan fans, Campbell’s multi-instrumental contributions marked a heyday in Dylan’s performance history. But those years took their toll on the couple’s relationship. “It was really hard,” Williams confirms. “I think it’s probably amazing that we made it through those years.”

Echoes of that struggle can be heard on “Live at Levon’s!” in the form of "Darling Be Home Soon,” written by John Sebastian of the Lovin' Spoonful, and “Success,” a country lament originally recorded by Loretta Lynn. Lynn’s music was ubiquitous during Williams’ childhood: “Loretta was the wallpaper of my life, growing up [in Tennessee] with my grandparents,” Williams says. When she and Campbell started performing “Success” together more recently, parallels between the strained relationship the song describes and her pre-Ramble Band experience brought her to tears. “I’m not meaning literally ‘success has made a failure of our home,’” she notes, “but there’s enough in there to play into it that it’s not hard to get to the emotion of it.”

click to enlarge "Being together is something Williams and Campbell don’t take for granted, as individual successes have often kept them apart." The couple's new album, “Live at Levon’s!” was recorded in 2019 over two nights at Helm's legendary Barn in Woodstock, NY.
  • "Being together is something Williams and Campbell don’t take for granted, as individual successes have often kept them apart." The couple's new album, “Live at Levon’s!” was recorded in 2019 over two nights at Helm's legendary Barn in Woodstock, NY.

A 2004 call from Levon Helm changed everything. Campbell heard from Levon shortly after hopping off the Never Ending Tour, and the gig that followed provided nearly a decade of hard-earned stability in a welcoming environment. “We’d hang, like we were at a picnic every time,” Campbell says. “Music was the focus, but it was kind of secondary to the community spirit of what was going on.”

Queue up the opening track of “Live at Levon’s!” — their take on Reverend Gary Davis’ “Let Us Get Together” — and you might feel like you’re part of that scene yourself. The inclusive, family-friendly atmosphere at the Barn made Williams feel right at home. “[There] would be kids asleep on pallets in front of Levon’s drum kit during the shows,” she says. “I remember going to the revivals when I was little — the missionary Baptist revivals — and the kids would be asleep on pallets because the church service would hold until the wee hours of the morning.”

According to Williams, the Ramble made attendees feel at home in an even more literal sense. “We talked to many people up there who came to a Ramble from Somewhere, U.S.A. and decided they needed to live in that area,” she says. “It’s kind of rejuvenated Woodstock’s music scene.” Campbell agrees: “It can’t be overstated, the influence [Helm] had on the musical development of that town.”

Growing as a duo

The Barn proved to be fertile ground for Campbell and Williams’ own development as a duo. Campbell calls it the “birthplace” of their current project, which has produced two studio albums: a self-titled 2015 debut and a 2017 follow-up called “Contraband Love.” “We’ve been singing together pretty much since we’ve been married,” Campbell says, “but up until our association with Levon, it was just for our own pleasure. Then we got into this thing with him, and it was a perfect, as Teresa calls it, ‘sandbox’ for creative play.”

The duo planned to expand their discography via “Live at Levon’s!” sooner, but the pandemic forced them to hold off. Campbell contracted a serious case of COVID-19 in March of 2020, and while some bands shared archival live recordings to fill the void that resulted from venues closing their doors, Williams and Campbell had envisioned bringing this album on the road. “Our main goal with it was to have something to sell at shows,” Campbell says. “If we weren't doing shows, then it didn't make sense to have it available yet.”

The pandemic may have been a roadblock in that sense, but the break from touring proved fortuitous on a personal level. It afforded Williams the opportunity to be at home in Tennessee to help her mother care for her father near the end of his battle with Alzheimer’s. “We were up close and personal with home care with my father,” Williams says. “It was the most profound experience I’ve ever had … Things happen. Forks in the road happen and change your plans, and I’m just grateful that I was allowed that time with him.”

Back on track… and on the road

With the fall leg of their first extended tour since 2020 complete and a show coming up at Richmond Music Hall on Friday, Feb. 3, plans are back on track. Their stop in Richmond will be a duo performance, providing an unfiltered glimpse of the chemistry Campbell and Williams have honed during their decades together. The stripped-down format complements their full-band shows in a fulfilling way. “The duo thing — there’s an intimacy there that’s really satisfying for us,” Campbell says. “The audience, either subliminally or directly, picks up on that.”

“I enjoy the simplicity,” Williams says, weighing the benefits of the two formats. “It’s apples and oranges. I enjoy both, but [with duo shows] maybe there’s a little more room for me to tell my tales [laughs]. We get a little of the old homespun humor in there, sometimes unintentionally.” Yet another area of Loretta Lynn’s influence she embraces.

Nevertheless, the album they’re releasing that Friday is a thrilling full-band romp — an exuberant tribute to the gig that enabled them to merge their musical lives. If you missed out on seeing them perform in the Midnight Ramble Band, it’s the next best thing. “After we lost Levon,” Campbell says, “my goal was to never play again without taking that feeling with me. The best way to get that, for me, is to continue on with this thing Teresa and I do together.”

Proof that musical nirvana, under the right circumstances, can travel with you.

Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams will perform at Richmond Music Hall on Friday, Feb. 3. Doors open at 7 p.m., music starts at 8 p.m. Roger Street Friedman will also perform. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased at thebroadberry.com.

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