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Kate Campbell offers a monument to singing

By John Lupton, June 2003

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Another instance of a long-dormant image that resurfaced in her creative consciousness comes in the first line of the opening track of "Monuments."

The song is "Yellow Guitar", a song that evokes all the "Crossroads" imagery of Mississippi blues and the Robert Johnson legend, and it grew out of a return of sorts to her literary roots, when she decided as a personal tribute to re-read the short stories of her "favorite Southern writer," Eudora Welty, on the occasion of Welty's passing in July 2001.

"She was from Jackson, Miss., a little bit further south (from Campbell's childhood home in Sledge, Miss.). When I first read her short stories about 20 years ago, I remember thinking, 'she writes the way I talk'. It was almost like 'comfort food', that I call it 'comfort language.' That was the effect that Eudora Welty had on me."

Re-acquaintance with Welty became a nightly, reassuring comfort.

"I kept (her stories) by my bed, and at night I would read a couple of stories...and one night, about midnight, I was reading this one story called 'The Hitchhiker'. As soon as I started reading it, I remember thinking 'this is not one of my favorite stories that I'd read earlier on' because it was a little bit creepy and a little bit more like a Flannery O'Connor story than a Eudora Welty story, I thought. The thing that struck me, though, was that right in the first paragraph was this beautiful sentence, 'I saw a man with a yellow guitar standing by the side of the road'. Of course, I missed it 20 years ago, but this one night I remember thinking 'why a yellow guitar?'. That's the first thing I thought...'nobody has a yellow guitar.'"

Natural storyteller that she is (not to mention one-time history professor), her inquisitiveness wouldn't go to sleep with her.

"I went to bed and went to sleep, and at three o'clock in the morning I began coming out of my sleep and dreaming the song, entirely. In fact, I had to get out of bed and write it down. When I was a little girl, I would not get out of bed, and I would try to write in the dark, but this, the words kept coming so much that it basically woke me up, and I knew that I had to get out of the bed and write it down. I almost sat straight up in bed when I dreamed 'halfway to Memphis, halfway to Tupelo'. I knew it immediately. It just woke me out of a dead sleep. So, 'Yellow Guitar' is an example of, really, my most natural way of writing. Even though I'm 41 now, it would have been the way I wrote when I was 16."

The image, she came to find, just wouldn't let go of her thoughts.

"I was affected by this notion of Mississippi, and the land, and the blues, and Robert Johnson, and who was the man with the yellow guitar, and why was it yellow? Was it yellow because the sun was shining on it in the morning light? And that's kind of what took me to the song. And that's really where the song came from for me because there really is something so mysterious about Mississippi."

That sense of mystery about Mississippi and the South, upholding the tradition of Welty, O'Connor, Faulkner and Willie Morris, is clearly a big part of what makes Kate Campbell tick.

"When I did begin to read them, it was just 'comfort language'. I can pick up those writers, and I just feel like they understand me, and I understand them. We're coming from the same place, and if I can ever learn to be the writers they were, that's great. I definitely hope that I've learned something from reading them."

The 12 covers and 1 original (the title track) on "Twang On A Wire" are, she admits - not that it's any sort of crime that requires confession or contrition - a loving reminder that the country music era of the late 1960s and into the 1970s was not the "lost decade" that many still believe it was, especially for women.

For Campbell, in her pre-teen and teen years, not only were Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton worthy role models, so were Sammi Smith, Donna Fargo and Jeannie C. Riley.

"I think a lot of people have forgotten some of these women now, because they say they weren't very progressive...and I want to say, 'You need to understand. First of all, women are still outnumbered in country music, probably four to one, and at that time, the fact that Dolly Parton was even alive to record her songs, to choose that, was totally amazing, and that these women had any place there whatsoever. Some of these songs may not sound very forward thinking to us at the time, but the fact that Sammi Smith sang 'Help Me Make It Through The Night', and she was a woman, that was quite radical at the time on country radio. All of these women, in different ways really, I think, contributed. In my case, it was very personal. I remember all those songs, and all those women, and they told me 'you know what? I can sing, and I can play the guitar, and it's important.' I do think they've been overlooked, and they've been forgotten."

Campbell understands that she doesn't quite fit the modern "country" label herself, regardless of how truly country she is.

"I think labels are hard. I don't mind the term singer-songwriter, because to me, my musical influences are very much R&B and country, what I call commercial country...I like the singer-songwriter term even better than alt.-country. Inside, I consider myself a songwriter first, really. But then I am a singer, too."

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