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.
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.
"I could choose to go back to school and finish the PhD, or go back and teach when I'm 50 or 55, but what would happen if I actually gave myself some time and just did the writing? And for me, it's still about the writing. It's not like writing historical essays, but that's my favorite part, how all the songs come together, pursuing those thoughts like a big mystery puzzle, trying to figure out how to write them."
Campbell's songs are infused with a quintessentially Southern sensibility.
"I realized why I'd spent a decade pursuing studies in Southern history: it was a confluence of the way I'd been writing since I was a little girl. I saw it as my interest in trying to understand where I came from and where I fit into that and why individual stories about people I had known moved me so much.
"When I began to realize that that's what I needed to write about, who cares whoever sings the songs. This was for me a very critical junction, and that's when I began to write songs like 'Mississippi and Me' and 'A Cotton Field Away.' And when I began to move into that, I began to understand my writing voice and what I need to pursue. Then it was a matter of learning to be a better songwriter from some of the wonderful people I worked with, how to structure and craft the songs better but retain that writing voice that was important to me."
So at age 30, Campbell quit academe, giving herself five years to get a publishing deal. Singing for a living wasn't even imagined then.
But, as she wryly puts it, "everyone wasn't interested."
Pursuing a publishing deal, Campbell played songwriters nights around Nashville until someone suggested she audition for Bluebird Cafe. "They hold auditions every few months, and it's very rigorous: you play one verse and one chorus." Her choice, "Locust Years," impressed folks enough that six months later she was invited back to sing three songs.
"So things are not moving that fast, really," she laughs. On the other hand, she was getting good responses when she sang the songs herself, "and people began to associate my music with me, not with what other artists were singing the songs."
Eventually, Campbell, her husband, Ira, and producer Johnny Pierce began work on "Songs From the Levee."
"We did five songs and sent them to my friends and family, and the response seemed to be pretty good, so we thought, let's just go ahead and do a whole record." They pressed 1,000 copies and sent some to indie labels. Once again, "nobody was interested."
Over the next year, Campbell kept playing the album's 10 songs in mini-showcases, including one at a little coffeehouse in Huntsville, Ala. Impressed with Campbell's press kit, a writer for the Huntsville Times wrote "a great article about the album and my coming there, so we had a full audience," including a talent scout for Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. A week later, Campbell got a call from producer Rick Hall, who soon signed her to Fame's publishing company. A month after that, Brown spotted a copy of "Songs From the Levee" in the local section at Tower Records in Nashville and soon after rereleased it on Compass.
There have been three other post-Compass albums, including 2001's "Wandering Strange," an update on traditional hymns, and 2003's "Twang on a Wire," a tribute to the female singers and songwriters Campbell heard when she was first learning to play guitar after her family moved to Nashville. Campbell describes them as "a true exploration of my musical roots."
The third album, "Monuments," explores the modern South, exemplified by the melancholy "Petrified House," which uses the metaphor of an invalid elderly woman holed up in a mansion, trying to push away the reality of a changing world. Like most of Campbell's work, the song is a poignant exploration of the duality of the South, its convoluted layers of class, race and religion.
According to Campbell, "no matter who you are or where you come from, I think you have to make peace with that in order to move through your life and accept that there's some things that are very difficult for us and hopefully there are some graceful moments. That's definitely what intrigues me, trying to express that and trying to express my grievances with my culture, but also my love of where I come from and trying to put them together."
Listening to Campbell's albums, you won't have much trouble finding key inspiration and influences, notably her father, Jim Henry (she was born Kitty Henry). For years Henry preached in Nashville; the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention has been pastor at First Baptist Church of Orlando since 1977.
"I would say he is my major influence, a great storytelling preacher," says Campbell, adding that her father also loves history ("He was a history major in college, too"). A couple of years ago, she performed at the Festival of Homiletics, an annual conference for improving preaching effectiveness.
"And as I listened to people from all over mainline, I realized that I approach songwriting somewhat with the same structural context as writing a sermon," Campbell says. "My father is very organized, uses a lot of alliteration and works off of titles, and it was this huge revelation to me when I was sitting there. I've heard so many sermons in my life from my father that I definitely think that on a very subtle level, I compose some of my songs that way."
Certainly, many of Campbell's songs reflect her experience as the daughter of a preacher who may have been conservative on many issues, but was also progressive on race matters, busing her to an integrated school at age 10 ("Bus 109") and opening his church to Freedom Riders.
"Almost all of my songs are from either a specific incident in my own life or something my father has told me, or, obviously sometimes something I've read. But all the songs generally start from that."
And it doesn't hurt to grow up in the world of great Southern writers, the ones who write in what Campbell calls "comfort language."
"My initial moment was reading Eudora Welty in college," she explains. "I had this feeling that she wrote the way I talked, and it also wasn't always what she was saying but what she wasn't saying."
KATE CAMPBELL -- Appearing Thursday at Jammin' Java. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Kate Campbell, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)