When I wrote a recent review on Kate Campbell’s last album, Two Nights in Texas, I predicted that we would be treated to a new one from her any time. Well, the time is here – the new CD, 1000 Pound Machine, was released April 3, 2012, on Kate’s independent Large River Music label, and it’s a beauty filled with all the Southern folk charm that fans have come to expect in a Kate Campbell album. Her unique stamp is imprinted all over the tracklist, including songs about the American South of Kate’s youth, people of the South (famous and not-so-famous), gospel tinged spirituals, a love song, a Mississippi delta blues piece, and a couple of instrumentals. This time around, though, the arrangements are sparser and the music more subdued. It is a beautifully cohesive album held together by an overall “lay-your-burdens-down” kind of theme offering rest for the weary and peace for the troubled soul. This is comfort food at its most palatable, served up in classy southern soul fashion.
Oddly enough, the medium through which all this comforting music for the human soul comes to us is a quite inhuman-sounding monstrosity called a “1000 pound machine.” What kind of machine can do this? Kate ponders this enigma in the opening title track –
“The pressing of the key / rocks the center rail / pushes down the jack / which makes the hammer fall … // And this is how it works / a simple pair of hands / still a mystery / the music of the spheres / a thousand pound machine.”
The machine, of course, is a piano, and Kate dedicates her new album to “all the piano teachers in the world, especially Diamond Murphy and Mary Todd Young.” Indeed, the title track opens with a simple repetition of quarter notes over which a part of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is played, sounding much like what a student’s piano lesson might sound like. Yet the sound that comes from the speakers is far from a stale, academic one. Rather, there is a lovely, ‘other-worldly’ quality to the music that somehow makes the mystery more profound, more magical. Kate herself sits at the piano bench, as she does on all the songs on this album. She began playing the piano at age seven, but switched to the guitar as a teenager during the folk-rock heyday of the ’70s and since that time she has written, recorded and performed almost exclusively on the acoustic guitar. On 1000 Pound Machine, however, she returns to the instrument of her childhood, passing the baton for the guitar parts into the capable hands of Will Kimbrough, 2004’s “instrumentalist of the year,” who also produces the album.
Kimbrough’s not the only stellar musician who contributes to the album. The entire lineup is a powerhouse of top-notch artists, including FAME Studio’s legendary Spooner Oldham on organ, Wurlitzer and Rhodes piano. Oldham, a 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, is a linchpin of the early southern soul and R&B sound (that’s his organ on Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and many other hits of the era). He also was a co-founder of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (dubbed ‘The Swampers,’ and mentioned as such in the lyrics of Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”). Oldham remains a much sought-after session artist. Then there’s David Hood on bass, one of the most influential bassists in rock and R&B history (his most famous lick probably being on The Staple’s “I’ll Take You There”). Hood is another one of the co-founders of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the group that left FAME Studios (Florence, AL), to form their own recording studio – the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, home of recordings by The Rolling Stones, The Staple Singers, Cher, Herbie Mann, and the list goes on. Hood is the father of Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, and is a contributor to countless recordings. John Deaderick (keyboards), Dave Jacques (string bass), David Henry (strings), and Paul Griffith (percussion) are all in-demand Americana stalwarts of the Nashville scene. Backup vocals are provided by Will Kimbrough, the great Emmylou Harris and Sloan Wainwright (yes, she is a member of that Wainwright family – she’s Loudon Wainwright’s little sister and Rufus’ aunt, and she possesses a gorgeous alto voice).
With a lineup like that, great things are expected and 1000 Pound Machine doesn’t disappoint. Across all 11 tracks, its theme of peaceful rest is consistently and beautifully expressed in various ways. Sometimes the source of rest comes from deep within our own selves, as in the track, “Alabama Department of Corrections Meditation Blues,” a slow, burning Delta blues song about a real meditation program that the Alabama prison system uses to turn some of its most violent death-row prisoners into peaceful inmates. The song gets some very fine contributions from Will Kimbrough’s resonator guitar and Emmylou Harris’ haunting harmonies, ending with a repetitive chanting of “Alabama here we rest, live in light and peacefulness.”
In other songs, the source for peace and rest comes through help from others around us. Even the simple love song, “Wait For Another Day,” has a nurturing quality to it (“only one thing that I need to do / is sit right here and tend to you”). “God Bless You, Arthur Blessitt” reflects Kate’s interest in trivia and lesser-known historical figures which often comes out in her songwriting. In this case, it is a traveling preacher from Greenville, MS, who holds the world’s record for the world’s longest walk. He’s best known for carrying a cross through every nation of the world. The song’s lyrics provide more glue to the overall theme – “God bless you, Arthur Blessitt / you have done your part / for peace in every land / and love in every heart.”
In “Montgomery to Mobile” the road to peace comes through cooperation with others dynamically different from ourselves, as in an imagined journey where Rosa Parks and George C. Wallace share a bus ride from Montgomery to Mobile: “You can take the window seat / and I’ll sit right beside you / we’ll see if the view has changed // So much pain / and so much struggle /when will there be / trouble enough / if we plow this field together / surely we can rise above.”
Then there’s “Spoonerville,” Kate’s tribute to Spooner Oldham with lyrics that allude to hit songs that Spooner has written and famous artists he has associated with throughout his career. I would have expected a kind of funky groove to the song, but here Kate wisely chooses to keep the sound consistent with the disc’s overall theme, and it is very beautifully done. It, too, ties in to the theme lyrically when the last verse suddenly but seamlessly switches to a spiritual tone (“Lift up your head / and roll up your bed / if you want to be healed”) and then just as suddenly and seamlessly switches back to Spooner’s career with one final allusion to a major heavyweight musician in the very last line.
Even “Red Clay After Rain,” a song that reflects on memories of home in the South with a hint of homesickness, uses spiritual phrases like “dyeing the rivers with that crimson stain” and “there ain’t enough water to wash it away.” The pensive instrumental, “The Occasional Wailer,” is a beautiful composition of piano, bouzouki, vibraphone, strings and percussion that steadily builds as it goes.
Other songs speak of a higher spiritual source for rest and comfort. The track, “I Will Be Your Rest” best encapsulates the entire album’s theme, not only in its title, but also in its lyrics and musical composition. Kate’s voice is in top form here, never sounding more soulful, accompanied only by piano and organ in the beginning and building with the addition of guitar, bass, drums and background vocals from Kimbrough as the song progresses. Clocking in at around 3 minutes, this track left me wanting more. Kimbrough’s brief but dynamite guitar solo could have easily been expanded to last another couple of minutes and the rousing chorus repeated again without the song overstaying its welcome. I found this one to be a real standout track, surpassed only by the gorgeous traditional African American spiritual, “Walk With Me.”
With “Walk With Me,” Kate shoots the ball completely out of the park, singing with a conviction that is not only heard, but felt. It is a song of former slaves who sung it for comfort and relief from their heavy burden. Years later, their descendants sung it as a civil rights anthem (changing a few lyrics) to help carry their own burden of social injustice during the tumultuous 1960’s. I imagine it is exactly the kind of song that would touch Kate deeply. As the daughter of a Baptist minister who spent her formative years in Sledge, Mississippi, during the 1960’s, her upbringing not only provided her with an early foundation of spiritual faith, but also placed her in circumstances where she witnessed social injustices first-hand. Kate has written numerous songs of her growing-up experiences in the south during that particularly troubling time in history, and the lyrics would seem to indicate that she and her family were compassionate people not untouched by what was going on around them. In one of her trademark songs, “Crazy in Alabama,” she refers to an incident where her father goes to the county jail to post bond for a poor black woman, an act that would not have been a popular one among the majority of whites at the time. Thus in the old spiritual, “Walk With Me,” two things come together that Kate would identify with – a deep spiritual faith in God, and a compassion for the downtrodden. Perhaps this is why she can sing this old hymn with such beautiful expression. Of course, I can’t speak for Kate; I can only respond as a listener to the music she has created, and this is my best explanation for the feeling that spills out of her voice as she sings this song. It is just achingly beautiful. Listen to the full song yourself (and all the rest of them) on Kate’s website.
The album ends beautifully with an instrumental, “1000 Pound Machine (Reprise),” which brings us back around full circle to the magical ‘other world’ – a place where a simple pair of hands mysteriously carries the listener to “the music of the spheres” by a thousand pound machine.
A place of rest. A place of beauty. Visit it – you’ll be glad you did.
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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