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Kate Campbell's Songs of the South

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2004; Page WE08

RAPPER NELLY'S twin album releases in September got a lot of attention, not least of which was because "Suit" and "Sweat" opened up at No.1 and No. 2 on Billboard's album chart.

But just a month earlier, singer-songwriter Kate Campbell released three albums on the same day: "The Portable Kate Campbell," "Sing Me Out" and "Songs From the Levee," a reissue of her 1994 debut.

Kate Campbell's Southern roots and her love of the region's culture and history form the foundation for her songs. (Tony Baker)

Sadly, they did not dent the Billboard chart.

"I think I'm in a different market than Nelly," Campbell says with an affable laugh from her Nashville home.

On the other hand, Campbell's triple release on the Compadre label was the result of the kind of tussles that seem to crop up at the indie level as often as they do with major labels. From 1995 to 1999, the honey-voiced storyteller recorded for Compass Records, a small label started by banjoist Alison Brown.

"I'm very grateful to them for signing me and putting out those records in the first place," Campbell says. "But because I continued to do these songs, I continued to sell those records, and I had to buy them from Compass. I felt a need to have ownership of them."

When Compass declined to sell Campbell masters to her three albums, she rerecorded 30 of the 33 songs on those albums as "The Portable Kate Campbell" and the more acoustic "Sing Me Out." Though producer Will Kimbrough has given the songs new bite, it's not just a case of old wine in new bottles. Many of them had already been rethought after years of road testing. Some hadn't been done much along the way; sometimes Campbell didn't like the way she'd recorded them the first time around. She also relied on a Web site for guidance from fans, though not always agreeing with their choices.

Case in point: "Wrought Iron Fences," which evokes Campbell's beloved South, conjuring ghosts of ancient days and empty houses where "all that's left to guard the remains are wrought iron fences." It opens "Portable" despite being the least requested of her songs.

"On the Web site rating my songs, it was last -- only one person voted for it," Campbell admits. "But I loved the way, structurally, that I wrote that song. Yet I never felt comfortable with the way I originally recorded it, so it was definitely a revisitation that I loved."

You can get a good sense of Campbell's aesthetic overview listening to "Mississippi and Me." The very first song on her debut contains the line "Way down in me a river runs deep down to remind me of just where I am." Or where she's been, which would include a childhood in Sledge, Miss., and years in Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee. Or who she is, a daughter of the South whose richly detailed, deeply nuanced songs are in the storytelling tradition of Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner.

"People say your first record is the culmination of whatever part of your life you've lived before then -- in my case, I had 30 years to write it," says Campbell, who still calls "Songs From the Levee" her favorite starting point when people ask which single album to buy. "For me, it's like an introductory chapter in a collection of short stories, the one that kind of lays out the themes that I was beginning to explore in my songwriting and those things that I kept coming back to again and again. I do think the records that have followed, hopefully there's been growth, hopefully I'm an improving songwriter and performer, but for me 'Songs From the Levee' set out some basic themes that I have continued to explore."

In college, Campbell says, professors of Southern history usually introduce their courses saying they are going to talk about land, race and religion, "and I pursue that a lot in my music."

That the poetic and historical should meld so easily in Campbell's work is a reflection of her pre-recording career. After getting a master's in Southern history at Auburn University, she was working on her PhD ("Southern history with an interest in religious and cultural history") at Nashville's Vanderbilt University.

"I thought I was going to be a teacher," Campbell says. But an impasse in her PhD work and an attendant depression led Campbell to abandon her studies and embark on a significant career diversion.

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