The average casual music fan probably hasn’t heard of Larry Campbell, yet he’s lived out the dreams of baby boomers everywhere who picked up guitar lessons to prove to their kids that they were once “cool.” He spent eight years rocking out with Bob Dylan and two years after that on tour with Phil Lesh and Friends. But Campbell’s musical resumé is defined by far more than the big names with whom he’s shared a bill. He’s learned an arsenal of string instruments, produced albums for everyone from the Americana A-List to up-and-comer folkies, worked in film (most notably producing the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack) and is a regular at the Midnight Rambles hosted by his partner-in-crime, Levon Helm. Campbell and Helm just released their second album together (Helm performing, Campbell and Helm’s daughter Amy on the production team), Electric Dirt on June 30 on Helm’s own label.
Country Music Pride caught up with Campbell on his way through Pennsylvania to talk about the state of the family farm, life with Levon and playing for the Pope.
Country Music Pride: Where are you now, Larry?
Larry Campbell: We’re on the bus heading into Pennsylvania on the way to Pittsburgh. We’re doing a show tomorrow with The Black Crowes and then another one in Ohio with The Black Crowes the next day and then heading back to Woodstock.
CMP: And how did the Letterman appearance go?
LC: Oh, It was a lot of fun. It was really cool. Dave was great. He was really thrilled to have Levon there, and the commercial break before our band and Paul Shaffer’s band did “The Weight” together. And it was like having a huge orchestra behind Levon singing. It was really cool. And that’s not what made the broadcast, but that was a great moment. It was very cool.
CMP: You’ve made a number of radio and television appearances over the years, from the shock jock circuit with Don Imus and Howard Stern to the Catholic Eucharistic Congress with Bob Dylan. Can you talk about some other highlights from your apperances, all the places you’ve been?
LC: Well, boy, that’s a long list right there. I think one of the most seminal as far as I’m concerned, one of the greatest experiences I’ve had was when we played the Ryman (Auditorium, in Nashville) with Levon twice over the past two years and this last time this past September, it was filmed and it’s gonna be broadcast on PBS for their fundraiser in August. And that, playing the Ryman with him was fabulous and the guests that sat in with us, Buddy Miller and Sam Bush and Sheryl Crow and John Hiatt and Delbert McClinton and the year before that, Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou, those are probably two of my favorite gigs I’ve ever done. Just being with Levon and this band and all these people sitting in, it was kind of like a new version of “The Last Waltz,” you know?
CMP: You play a ton of instruments, inlcuding the Wurlitzer, the cittern, and the Irish bozouki. What for you determines which instruments you’re going to pick up next? Do you have any favorites?
LC: The favorite seems to shift every month or so. If it had to be one, I guess it would be guitar because it’s probably the most versatile. Determining which one of those things to use, it’s just instinct at the moment and you just try to think about what serves the song the best and what the other musicians are playing and what I’m in the mood for.
CMP: Let’s talk about Bob a little bit. How did you first get involved as a member of his backing band?
LC: Tony Garnier, Bob’s bass player, who’s now been with him well over 20 years, was a really good friend of mine. We’d been working together. He was a bass player in Asleep at the Wheel and we met in ’78 I think it was and played in a whole bunch of different bands together through the ’80s and he started working with Bob, and around that time I was working with Cyndi Lauper and Roseanne Cash and a bunch of different people. And Bob was looking for a new guitar player and Tony recommended me. I went down and played with him for three days. It worked out and for the next eight years, I was playing with Bob. It was really through Tony that the connection was made.
CMP: Any favorite memories of your Dylan years that you’d like to share?
LC: There were some great moments there. The thing that sticks in my mind is, there’s some nights you’re up there in front of a huge audience, and playing an anthemic song like “Blowin’ in the Wind” with Bob Dylan and it’s a really good night for the band, and it’s a really good night for him, those kind of moments you just can’t beat. It’s not any particular place, although there were some really surreal experiences like playing for the Pope. Another gig I remember was playing in Sicily with Mt. Aetna behind us, erupting, a few miles away. That was pretty amazing. But mostly what I remember was there were a few nights of just realizing what I was doing and who I was doing it with and just thinking, ‘This is pretty cool.’
CMP: You were a part of one of Bob Dylan’s most polarizing projects, the 2003 film Masked and Anonymous. Looking back, do you feel as though the project got a bad rap?
LC: You know, I can’t even comment on that. My comprehension of what was going on then is very limited. I never really got it. But I had a great time doing it. And one thing I will say is they handled the music performances very well in that movie. Beyond that, it was just great hanging out with John Goodman and Jeff Bridges and Ed Harris and Jessica Lange, just hanging with these people was great. And that’s what I remember from it. But the substance and the artistic value of that movie, I didn’t understand at the time. I may never understand, but apparently Bob understood it, and there you go.
CMP: On the subject of film, you produced the soundtrack to Brokeback Mountain. Do you think you would ever produce for film again?
LC: Oh, I’d love to, yeah. There’s actually a possibility, there’s a few things coming up, and I absolutely enjoy that work. And that was with Willie Nelson who I’ve worked with a few times and he’s one of my favorite people to work with. Doing film is a great thing, but that’s its own dedication. I’m so busy with records and with Levon and other people that I’m playing with that it’s difficult to get into that flow again, you know? But if something comes up, and it may be some things we’re working on now, but working with film is very rewarding because the mood, the subject matter and all that stuff is set up for you. You don’t have to create that, you only have to interpret it. And I really like that.
CMP: You’ve just produced another album with Levon Helm. Has your collaboration or style changed at all since Dirt Farmer? What can fans of the last album expect from this new one?
LC: Dirt Farmer was special because it was very real and authentic and unpretentious and it was a clear look into Levon’s soul. So with this record, we tried to hold on to all that, just expand the medium a little bit. So we ventured more into, keeping still some of that traditional feel––there’s a couple of gospel tunes on here, a couple blues tunes, there’s a Grateful Dead tune, there’s a Randy Newman tune and there’s a few tracks with the horns and the whole band, and the last one is just acoustic string instruments. We try to hold on to the honesty and integrity of that Dirt Farmer record but just make it a little bigger and I think we made it. I think we got it done.
CMP: The team for your first production collaboration with Levon, Dirt Farmer, included your wife, Teresa Williams, as well as Levon’s daughter, Amy Helm, all of whom returned for Electric Dirt. Do you think the “family dynamic” impacted this record in any way, and if so, how?
LC: Yeah, I do. It’s kind of like, you can sort of compare it to when brothers or sisters sing together. There’s this special empathy between the vocals. And when you keep a family vibe around making music, it just gets a little deeper. It gets a little closer to the heart and you’re working with people you know intimately and there’s a lot of stuff that you can make the listener feel that I think otherwise you wouldn’t go as deep.
CMP: You wrote a song for the new album called “Growing Trade,” about a farmer struggling to preserve his lifestyle. How did the song come about and what words of wisdom do you have for people in the agricultural trade?
LC: My wife Teresa’s from west Tennessee and down there, and all through the South and Midwest, there’s so many former small family farmers that made a great living through generations and that stuff has just been decimated. And it was interesting, in her community, we hear about these Bible Belt, churchgoing, heavily convicted in their beliefs, farmers who were turning to growing marijuana because this is the only way they could make money and save their farms. And that, more than anything, was the most important thing in their life. They didn’t want to be known as the generation that lost the family farm. So whatever it took to hold on to that, they were gonna do it. I just found that interesting because, I mean, the stuff should be legal in the first place, but it’s not, and the fact that these folks had to break the law just to save what’s important to them and should be important to the rest of the country, I just thought that was an interesting subject. And Levon and I were talking about it and this is the song that’s came out of that.
CMP: You’re a regular at Levon’s Midnight Rambles in Woodstock, N.Y. For those who haven’t had the privilege of attending one yet, can you describe the experience of participating in one of Helm’s Midnight Rambles?
LC: The beauty of the Midnight Ramble is that it’s a small, intimate environment and a great-sounding room and the audience surrounds the band and it’s very loose and unformal. And we feel like we’re part of the audience and the the audience feels like they’re part of the band. It just feels lie a bunch of people hangin’ out, and everyone’s an important part of it. the audience just as much as the band. It’s just about having a good time playing and listening to music and it’s about nothing but the music. You come there, experience it. You’re gonna feel better walking out than you did walking in, both musicians and audience.
CMP: You’ve worked with everyone from Phil Lesh to Sheryl Crow, Dylan to Lucy Kaplansky to Kinky Friedman. Who have been your favorite performers to collaborate with or produce for, and why?
LC: Wow. Well, here’s something. I was given an award at the Americana Music Association in Nashville last year. It was a complete surprise. I didn’t know anything about it. Levon handed it to me, and I had to say a few words. First thing that came to my mind was that I’ve had a great career. It’s been playing with people I admire, very talented people. Some I enjoy more than others, but that’s all been great. But ultimately, what I said at this acceptance, it seems like all that experience was a pathway leading to Levon for me. I think where I am now with him is probably musically the most sympathetic situation I have ever been in. The thing is, for all the music that I feel deeply and admire and strive to play well, which is basically any genre of American music, from blues to bluegrass, country, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, Levon is the one person that I’ve ever worked with that can authentically perform in any one of those styles as if that’s the only thing he does. Which is not to diminish at all the experiences I’ve had with other people. Working with Paul Simon, that’s a whole other thing, but it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever thing. The stuff with Phil Lesh, that’s a whole other side of American music that I’ve been able to explore. It’s also very fulfilling and that Grateful Dead catalog is immense and very diverse. But I have to say this, what I’m doing now with Levon, is as comfortable a fit musically as I’ve been offered.
CMP: Who are you listening to these days?
LC: I’m pretty enthralled with some African guitar players these days. Chris Robinson from The Black Crowes has an incredible iPod with all this great music of people I’ve never heard of or haven’t heard for many years, and when I’m trying to find something interesting I’ll just get in touch with him and see what he’s got. You know, there’s a lot of great stuff on alternative radio these days, and because that’s where I work, and because that’s what I do, I don’t spend a lot of time listening to it. I look to other places for inspiration and I can only look at music for the value of its inspiration to me. I’m listening to a lot of old gospel like the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Nightingales, people like that. Oh, there’s a whole lot of stuff that just kind of comes out of the blue. But I will say, one record I can’t quit listening to is my very good friends Buddy and Julie Miller. Their latest one is just fabulous. I played on it but besides that, I think it’s a great record.