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Kate Campbell offers a monument to singing

By John Lupton, June 2003

With nearly a full decade's worth of life's highway showing in her rear-view mirror since the 1994 release of her debut, "Songs From The Levee," southern siren Kate Campbell already has left in her wake a series of richly textured recordings, each of which her devoted fan base considers "monumental" on its own merits.

Now 41, as if to show that she's just on the verge of hitting her stride, her new release of all-original material, "Monuments" is accompanied by a second new disc, "Twang On A Wire" (both on her own Large River label), a deeply personal salute to the women of country music whose music inspired her.

After spending her early years in northern Mississippi, where her father was a minister, her family moved to Nashville in the late 1960's, and she continues to be a Music City resident.

"Momuments" began to take shape when she chanced to see a "CBS Sunday" feature about a local sculptor, William Edmondson, much of whose work is destined to grace gravesites all over Tennessee for decades, even centuries to come.

"I was totally engrossed with his story, so much so that the very next day I got up and went down to a museum here in Nashville where they had some of his work and bought the museum book that talks about him and his life. I went on the Internet, and I was totally moved by his life."

Inspired, Campbell wrote "William's Vision", and it became the cornerstone, so to speak, of the new album, and as Campbell notes, "the only song that has the word 'monuments' in it."

The remaining nine songs, though, all support and interlock with the "monuments" theme squarely and neatly, as befits a stonemason of Edmondson's stature - or for that matter, a songmason of Campbell's unquestioned ability, though she's quick to point out that she worked and wrote closely with longtime partners Mark Narmore, Walt Aldridge and husband Ira Campbell. Aldridge also produced and engineered, and Campbell trusted him implicitly.

"I wanted a very intimate sound. There was never a point where we called in a band all at one time on this record. We really started almost every track with me and the guitar in the studio, not a bunch of people running around, nothing, it would just be me and Walt. And then we decided what else did we want to have, what does this song want?"

For those who have fallen in love with Campbell's talent for telling Southern stories - a talent often compared to the likes of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor - the good news is that the stories in "Monuments" range from the Grande Dames still clinging like wisteria to a long-gone past to a "New South" that includes a Starbucks on every other corner.

As she learned through the process of writing "Joe Louis' Furniture," sometimes inspiration lies dormant for years, waiting for the right moment to re-emerge.

In this case, it began with a visit to her in-laws in Birmingham.

"It was Ira's father, my father-in-law, who told me the story of meeting the actual man who has Joe Louis' furniture...I was immediately struck by that. We got in the car to drive back to Nashville, and I wrote the chorus in the car. Then it took me about six months to finish the song because it was a very difficult song to write because of the voicing in the song. It's about Joe Louis, but it's also about the man who owns Joe Louis' furniture. It was a hard song for me to compose. I kept wondering, why am I so interested in this particular story?"

The question lingered, until her own father unwittingly supplied the "missing link" during a subsequent phone chat.

"My father said, 'Have you written any new songs lately?', and I said well, I have this song, kind of about Joe Louis, and it's kind of about another guy. And my father immediately said to me, 'Well, you know, Joe Louis was daddy's favorite fighter' (meaning Campbell's own grandfather), and it wasn't until my dad said that...that I then realized and remembered immediately, when I was a little girl I would go to my grandparents' house often and spend the night on Friday nights. That was before cable and HBO, and they would do this thing called the 'Friday Night Fights', and if they were on, I would watch them with my grandfather."

Noting that the song mentions Muhammad Ali, she continues, "I'm quite sure this was...before he became Muhammad Ali, and Joe Frazier and George Foreman, and all those guys were fighting. I'm sure my grandfather said to me on many occasions, 'This guy's okay, you know, but Joe Louis is the best there's ever been'. I'm quite sure that statement came from my grandfather, though I didn't realize it when I wrote it or why at first the story itself was so interesting to me. I definitely think it's because of my grandfather. And that, to me, is the magical thing about songwriting...I often discover that the song has something to tell me that I don't even know sometimes, when I'm writing the song. Sometimes I think I'm writing the ' song for another reason, then I get through, and it's something totally new."

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