In the documentary Ain't in It for My Health, which chronicled a snippet of Levon Helm's final years, Helm's friend and musical collaborator Larry Campbell plays a quiet but vital supporting role. In one of the film's most revealing sequences, Campbell and Helm, the former drummer and vocalist for The Band, slowly take some half-written lyrics from Hank Williams and cultivate them into a real, fleshed-out song the country legend would have been proud of.
It didn't come easy. In one of Campbell and Helm's first cracks at the song, Helm is distracted with health and financial worries and barely registers any interest in contributing. Campbell keeps prodding along, though, until toward the end of the film, Helm triumphantly records "You'll Never Again Be Mine." The song sounds like a long-lost classic, a testament to the deep reservoir of talent Helm still possessed even toward the end of his life. But it was Campbell, seen throughout quietly nudging Helm to write and record, who helped to coax it all out of him.
Helm brought Campbell and his wife Teresa Williams to help start his Midnight Ramble concerts, a series of shows performed at Helm's rural property in Woodstock, N.Y. But Campbell and Teresa were more than just backup musicians. They were true pros who had a hand in revitalizing the ailing Helm's career, helping him earn three Grammys for his solo work before he died in 2012. "I quickly realized that I really enjoyed those moments where Teresa and I could sing together in the safety of the Levon Helm Band," Campbell tells City Weekly in a phone interview. "It was a real comfort zone where we could try these things."
For Campbell, that comfort zone existed in the background—touring with Dylan, producing, writing, but always happy to yield the attention to someone else. After years of encouragement by friends and fans, Campbell and Williams left that comfort zone and stepped into the spotlight with their 2015 self-titled debut album. While both music industry veterans in their own right, the couple admits they're still getting accustomed to performing on their own. "I never considered myself a frontperson in any way—or much of a singer for that matter," Campbell says.
Williams, who spent more time than her husband fronting bands, never saw it that way. "When I first met him, I was confused that he didn't step forward," she says. "He has a lot of stage presence—he just does. And I loved the way he sang. It confused me back then, and I would push him to sing more." Although they didn't start performing for larger audiences until recently, the couple has been performing together informally for years. In fact, before our interview, they had just finished performing for family and friends at Williams' family property for the annual Fourth of July celebration.
The first time Campbell joined the Williams family for the celebration was 1987, the year before they got married. "That may have been the first time Teresa and I performed in public [together]," he says. "The genesis of that was sitting under that tree [on the Williams' property] and just casually singing together and making music." Many of the songs on their album grew from the years since then. The record is a dynamic mix of originals and covers that come with the lived-in harmonies of a couple that knows each other well. The no-frills arrangements keep the couple's voices front-and-center, and the songs serve well the simple, timeless purposes of folk music: giving a voice to heartache ("Another One More Time," "Did You Love Me at All") and having a good time ("Bad Luck Charm," "Everybody Loves You").
For Williams, who grew up in rural Tennessee, the music of her home was with her for as long as she can remember. Campbell, who was born and raised in New York City, didn't really start to understand country music until he spent some time living in Jackson, Miss.
"My obsession with this music mandated that I needed to really try to understand the culture down here," Campbell says. So did his obsession with Williams. "I would never have considered marrying Larry if he hadn't had those couple years in Mississippi," Williams says. "He wouldn't have understood what he was getting into."
Music helped them bridge that cultural divide, and it would help them around many other obstacles over almost 30 years together. Williams said in the early days of their union, she had to get used to her husband being away on tour for so long. But now that they're musical partners, being together on tour and on stage has its own challenges. "We're together constantly now," Williams says. "It was like a total flip." Campbell agrees that it takes some getting used to, but, ever the collaborator, he still sees a lot of work left to be done with Williams, the person he describes as the most satisfying musical partner he's worked with yet. "[Making more music with her is] a goal of mine that has yet to be tapped," he says.