When country/folk-roots singer songwriter Kate Campbell opens her mouth to sing, you definitely know she’s from the Deep South – telltale signs ooze from her every syllable. But this southern bred artist from Mississippi is no country bumpkin. Her inherited country twang is tempered by a polished refinement and beautiful expression that adds irresistible charm to her voice, captivating audiences and drawing them into her southern world which is the birthplace of such notable writers as Harper Lee, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. Kate’s formative years were spent in Sledge, Mississipi during the height of the civil rights movement and much of her music is inspired by her coming-of-age experiences as a young middle-class white girl during those tumultuous times. As the daughter of a Baptist minister, she was exposed to a heavy dose of spiritual singing, having grown up singing hymns out of the Baptist Hymnal that proclaimed a love for God and fellow man at a time and locale where paradoxical community attitudes abounded. She also grew up listening to a melting pot of music on the radio, including country, folk, pop, R&B and southern rock – all played on the same radio station. Her songwriting is a hodge-podge of all these diverse influences. Many of her compositions are autobiographical yet presented in a way that reveals the bigger picture of universal humanity, and her talent for singing her stories is every bit as evident as the talents of the authors previously mentioned whose works she admires and to whom she is often compared. Her CD booklets frequently include some of her favorite quotes from these literary giants and others.
Though she hasn’t broken through to mainstream super-stardom, those who take the time to discover Kate Campbell invariably become devoted fans. Some of those fans were treated to two concert nights on April 8-9, 2010 at the Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio in Wimberley, Texas, where she was joined onstage by Sally Van Meter on dobro, Scott Ainslee on guitar and banjo, and Don Porterfield on bass. Selections from the concerts were recorded and released in September 2011 on Kate’s own independent record label to become her newest album, Two Nights in Texas.
For those unfamiliar with Kate Campbell, Two Nights in Texas is a perfect introduction to her music, with the performances giving a well rounded representation of Kate’s diverse works – a mix of southern blues, fun and quirky songs, original southern gospel compositions, and several of her signature songs about growing up in a racially divided place. Her backup band is spot on and the acoustics are excellent.
Hearing the live performances will make new listeners want to search out Kate’s entire discography to discover more treasures (of which there are plenty) – like “In My Mother’s House” on 1999’s Rosaryville. I would hate to choose just one Kate Campbell song to own, but if I had to, this would be the one I would choose – a gorgeous autobiographical song that showcases just how charming Kate’s voice can be. In the song’s chorus (“the chimes in the hall / sound every hour”), the melody and Kate’s lilting voice produce an extraordinary sound reminiscent of chimes. It is Kate at her very finest. New listeners will also want to hear the studio versions of the concert songs, where they are given a more fleshed out sound than what is possible with a recording in an intimate concert setting. Audio samples from all her albums, including several full-length songs that can be streamed, are on her website.
So what advantage does Two Nights in Texas offer to those who already own her studio recordings? Besides excellent live performances of some of Kate’s best songs and some entertaining commentary about a few of them, Two Nights in Texas includes two beautiful medleys you won’t hear on any of her studio albums. One medley seamlessly joins the song, “Rosa’s Coronas,” (a touching song about a Cuban cigar factory worker who worries about her daughter and grandbaby who have fled the country for America), with “Lanterns on the Levee” (a pretty song of devotion that was included on Kate’s debut album which earned Kate an Indie Award nomination for Best Singer/Songwriter from the Association for Independent Music). The medley serves as a beautiful closer to Two Nights in Texas.
The other medley – the standout track of the whole disk, without a doubt! – is the gorgeous 8-minute “Steal Away Trilogy,” which joins three songs. It begins with “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport,” (a song made popular by George Jones and covered by numerous artists including B. J. Thomas), gently slides into the gorgeous original composition “Peace Comes Stealing Slow” (with lyrics having obvious parallels to W.B. Yeats’ poem, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’), and then beautifully segues into the mid-19th century African American gospel tune, “Steal Away” for an exquisite ending.
Also included on the live recording is “Jesus and Tomatoes,” which as fans know, is one of Kate’s funniest and most entertaining songs about an individual who seizes on the commercial opportunity to market a ‘holy image’ seen on a tomato vine, only to be rebuked (“I heard a knocking at my door / it was a lawyer for the lord, saying ‘don’t do this no more’ / said, ‘come and dine with me / we’ll have a BLT”). Kate tells her Texas audience that she got the idea to write such a crazy song when she saw a sign in front of a fruit and vegetable stand that said “Jesus and tomatoes coming soon.” “I knew immediately that was going to have to be a song,” she told them. She also shared a little humor with her Texas audience about the song, “10,000 Lures,” a beautifully performed original gospel-oriented composition: “So my momma says, ‘you know, Kate, I believe that song could go in the Baptist hymnal,’ and I said, ‘I really don’t believe the word ‘voo-doo’ has ever been in the Baptist hymnal!’ Another highlight is the ultimate car song, “Galaxie 500,” about a child’s memories of the family car with vinyl seats that “burned my legs on summer afternoons” and of hearing from the car’s radio the announcement that Martin Luther King had just been shot. Kate also performs an excellent version of her much-loved song “New South,” about progress and how it has affected the modern-day south.
Of course, no concert would be complete without a few of Kate’s trademark songs about her experiences growing up in the south during the 1960’s, and Two Nights in Texas includes excellent live performances of three of them – “A Cotton Field Away” (a song about changes that swept southern society with forced desegregation while a black child and a white child remained a cotton field away), “Look Away” (a solemn, piano-driven anthem about the south’s “long and slow surrender retreating from the past”), and the iconic “Crazy in Alabama,” which probably is the one song that best captures the essence of Kate’s music (“but the train of change was coming fast to my hometown / we had the choice to climb onboard or get run down“).
Kate Campbell has contributed much to America’s repertoire of classic southern folk music. With her most recent album of new material being released in 2008, it should only be a matter of time before we are treated to something new from this national treasure. Considering her past achievements, it is a pretty sure bet that she will not disappoint. In the meantime, I’ll settle for sitting back and enjoying the warmth and beauty of Two Nights in Texas.
Kezzie Baker lives in the heartland of America and if there’s one thing she likes better than listening to all kinds of music, it’s talking about it. There are just way too many truly great artists that never receive the notoriety they deserve. She tries to do what she can to change that by spreading the word around to anybody who will listen.
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