The Core: Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams

Mike Greenhaus on September 27, 2017

After spending many years supporting the likes of Levon Helm, Little Feat and Hot Tuna, the “First Couple of Americana” strike out on their own with another album of original material and classic covers.


LARRY CAMPBELL: The songs on Contraband Love started gestating about a year and a half ago. I had to take a break from songwriting after our [2015 self-titled debut] because it’s a difficult process for me; I waited for the inspiration to come around again and it finally did. Over the course of about a year, the original songs started coming in and Teresa and I started looking for a couple of covers.

We started recording in February—the melodies came to me first. That’s a joyous experience. Then comes the hard work, thinking of something to write about and actually sitting down to write it in a way that either hasn’t been done before or that is personal.

TERESA WILLIAMS: It’s hard for us to even have a sitdown conversation. Larry can express himself with music, no problem, but when you add words, it forces him to go somewhere that he may not like.


LC: Our last album was my first foray into concentrated songwriting. There are guys who can do this all day, every day. They’re built that way—writing a song is just an automatic way of expressing themselves. It doesn’t work that way for me. After that record, I felt like I might never write another song again. It took a year or so of performing the songs live and getting real comfortable with them—understanding what Teresa and I were all about on a whole other level—before the inspiration to write came back again. That was the spark to get this next record going.

If a song is an honest expression, then you have to go down into the dark places you may not want to visit and put that out there for everybody to see. But this experience, or this emotion, is filtered through the music so that the people listening to it are not just staring at you in your underwear.

TW: This is Larry and songwriting: After he finished this one song, we were driving along in the car on our way to Tennessee. We had been sitting quiet for a while and, all of the sudden, he says, out of the blue: “I just feel violated.” It was perfect! I laughed and I was like, “From finishing that song?” And he was like, “Yeah.”


LC: Teresa and I started working with Levon in ‘05, and we have done virtually everything together since then. It happened organically. We all had an opportunity to hone our thing in the Ramble Band, and we made a conscious effort to make something of our own after Levon died. It was, “What are we going to do now?”

I wasn’t going to stop producing records, but this is ours. Teresa and I do it together. We travel together; we make music together. It was time that we took this thing that we were given the opportunity to do with all these great artists and break out on our own and see what happens. It’s probably the most fulfilling thing that I’ve done musically in my career. I want to keep walking down this path until it hangs above a cliff.


LC: We recorded Contraband Love at Justin Guip’s studio in Milan Hill, N.Y. Justin has engineered every record I’ve produced since we started working for Levon. He was the studio manager at Levon’s place up until Levon’s demise, and then moved all the equipment up to his barn. He played drums on the record, but our bassist, Byron Isaacs, was stolen from us by The Lumineers. [Laughs.] Simone Felice produced their last record and called Byron to play bass. They were knocked out by his bass playing and his whole vibe and they grabbed him.

So Jesse Murphy played on most of our record. And we have Bill Payne playing keyboards—I want to make another record with him. I first met Bill back in 2000 when I was playing with Dylan and he was touring with Phil and Friends. Teresa, Justin, Byron and I did a few tracks that Bill wrote with Robert Hunter. I hope they will eventually see the light of the day.


LC: Teresa’s been singing Carl Perkins’ “Turn Around” for years, and we performed it with Levon and the Ramble Band quite a few times. In fact, that’s him playing drums on the rhythm track we used on the new record. While we were making Levon’s Electric Dirt record, we had some downtime, so he suggested that Teresa and I record a couple of tunes. We did five rhythm tracks with Levon, Byron and Justin. We put “You’re Running Wild” on the last record and we thought we should put another tune with Levon on it on this record.

We’ll go through the tracks again and see if we can add something else to the next record, too. There are still a few things in Levon’s vault that I’m aware of and there’s probably a lot more that I’m not aware of that goes back to the RCO days and the post-Band era. One of these days, I want to get up there and go through as much as we can.


TW: We made the effort to get back to our home in Tennessee to do the photo shoot for the record. Since the 1830s, various members of my family have lived there. My brother was living there when he died back in ‘86—every generation would add another layer of wallpaper or a plank or paint. We took this picture of a wall in the cabin for the album—it looks decrepit. You can see the wallpaper peeling away and the different layers all, down to the wall, and the different contributions of all these generations. In hindsight, it’s symbolic—that is, for the music on the record.