Few new releases in any contemporary genre carry the distinguished credentials of Larry Campbell and Theresa Williams. The former was Bob Dylan’s lead guitarist from 1997 to 2004 before going on to assume similar duties in the last stable lineup of Phil Lesh and Friends from 2007 to 2008. Campbell then went on to work with the late Levon Helm at his barn studio/venue, primarily at first as guitarist/vocalist, then eventually as bandleader and producer. For her part, Williams was a frequent lead and backup singer in the Grateful Dead bassist’s ensemble while contributing vocals to ‘The American Beauty Project, a tribute to the iconic band’s seminal studio album.
The most obvious point of reference for Campbell & Williams’ collaboration is that of the late Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris, particularly on “You’re Running Wild.” A more appropriate comparison, however, at least in terms of personal expression on songs such as “Surrender to Love,” might be to that other couple devoted to roots music: Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. Not that the latter’s Delaney and Bonnie/Mad Dogs & Englishmen influences show up on this work, but in the form of tunes like the steady chugging rockabilly of “Bad Luck Charm,” Campbell and Williams remain true to their influences without slavishly aping them precisely because they are speaking in their own collaborative voice.
In doing so, they’re aided and abetted by staples of The Levon Helm Studio’s session crew, including drummer Justin Guip (who appeared on the Campbell-produced Jorma Kaukonen album of 2015, Ain’t In No Hurry, and acts as recording and mix engineer for these sessions). But in addition to the compact core lineup, there’s also the increasingly peripatetic Bill Payne (Little Feat, Leftover Salmon) on “Another One More Time,” among others. The wry title of that latear number, like most of this record, is an original of Campbell’s and a homage to classic country music (that also echoes through “Ain’t Nobody for Me”) and the aforementioned keyboardist’s piano plants a barrelhouse imprint on the arrangement to become a delicious foil for the author’s guitar..
The quietly resolute delivery of Williams’ vocal is the real highlight, however, and, in fact, her skill in singing begs for greater prominence as the eleven cuts progress here. Campbell’s deep dusky voice is a splendid contrast for the deceptively fragile sound of Williams’, but he’s not so highly-evolved as a vocalist. Nevertheless, he remains an ever-so-astute producer and bandleader though so this eponymous project proceeds in concise economical fashion from start to finish, where some familiar cover material appears in the form of “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” and “Attics of My Life.”
The former is a staple of the Hot Tuna repertoire and its inclusion not only broadens the spectrum of style here, but serves as homage to a band that’s come to be a repository of musical history in its forty-years plus together. The latter number is one of the most exquisitely wrought entries in the Jerry Garcia/ Robert Hunter canon of compositions (it concluded the recent Fare Thee Well performances in Chicago) as well as the arguable high point of the Dead’s vocal harmonizing, here delivered in near-perfect sonority as Levon’s daughter Amy sings with her female counterpart, with Campbell effectively in the background.
Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, with the sympathetic support of their chosen accompanists, turn both those songs into poignant reflections on their life together and in association with other great musicians, so it is not to disparage their own skills to designate this pair of tracks as the high points of the album. In fact, as a two-part culmination of the song sequencing for this arresting record, it is perfectly fitting and altogether potent.