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A stripped-down, heartfelt message from Kate Campbell

By Chris Cooper

Kate Campbell’s roots in southern storytelling and musical tradition run deep. Her earlier albums, specifically Songs From The Levee and Moonpie Dreams bridged the gaps between folk, country and pop in a manner not unlike Mary Chapin Carpenter’s mid-90’s work.

She’s also demonstrated a knack for casting A-list musicians on her albums, like Bruce Hornsby sideman George Marinelli, legendary Muscle Shoals producer Spooner Oldham, and Emmylou Harris guitarist Buddy Miller. Heck, let’s toss Emmylou herself in there as well, since she popped up as a guest on 1998’s Visions Of Plenty.

Along with the mostly “secular” musical offerings, there were hints scattered in the early catalog pointing to Campbell’s gospel leanings — check the lyrics to “Sing Me Out” from Visions Of Plenty.

By 2001 she made the leap fully, digging into the church-going memories of her youth for the reinvented gospel of Wandering Strange. Here, she kept the sound of her previous efforts — the sparse, intelligent full band arrangements and modern production, but applied it to a set of personal, deeply spiritual songs. The album as well marked her continued collaboration with Spooner Oldham, an indication possibly of things to come in her music.

With For The Living Of These Days, Campbell has mostly abandoned the band sound in favor of a completely stripped down voice/instrument combination, be it piano, organ or guitar. She’s as well given in completely to the spiritual themes that were building through the course of her songwriting career.

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Whereas some moments on Wandering Strange worked better as concept than song, here she skips the uncomfortable juxtapositions. For better or worse, the songs on For The Living Of These Days are simply what they are — the succinct, straightforward musings of a songwriter that’s embracing religious ideology as a way of dealing with the things she sees in the world.

Now, this musicology could easily narrow the field when it comes to potential album sales. It also may leave some long-time fans wishing for the glory days of her more lighthearted popping country material, like “Bowl-A-Rama” or “Jesus and Tomatoes.” And there’s an overwhelming lack of subtlety in regards to the lyrical content — not that the storytelling and performances aren’t what you’d expect from an artist like Campbell.

But a quick look at the song titles gives more than a glimpse as to what lies within, from the opener, Woody Guthrie’s “Jesus Christ” to the Irish traditional “Be Thou My Vision” it’s pretty clear where Campbell’s heart is. If you’re OK with the message, you’ll dig the record. If not, well ...

Spooner Oldham, one of the originators of the Muscle Shoals deep soul sound and session man for a staggering list of stellar artists, provides accompaniment for Campbell. Calling him a veteran is a grand understatement of his musical gift, so it’s no surprise that he delivers gorgeous textures everywhere on the album, from the timeless grit of a Wurlitzer electric piano on “Without Him” to the soulful layers of “Would They Love Him Down In Shreveport?” His knack for never cluttering the song, always staying out of the way of the vocal is a cast study for budding session musicians of every stripe.

To me, Campbell’s take on Kris Kristofferson’s “They Killed Him” is the most powerful statement on the album, and it’s the bluntness of Kristofferson’s lyric that drives the song, no matter how beautifully Campbell sings it — “Just another holy man/who dared to be a friend/my God they killed him.” The sentiment isn’t new, in fact, it’s become fairly hip to name-check MLK and Gandhi in popular music. But here, there’s such authenticity in the delivery that it resonates on a deeper level than usual.

For The Living Of These Days is a decidedly unfashionable, un-trendy record, but by no means are those bad things. The album is a deeply honest and fearless statement of belief by an award winning southern songwriter, and refreshing in it’s own way, when we’re inundated as listeners by artists and labels that seem hell bent (ha ha) on delivering what they think we WANT to hear.

Kate Campbell continues to evolve and surprise, and this is what we should expect from songwriters. Not everything will appeal to everyone, but it’s the musical journey, and the stops along the way, that make a body of work worth remembering. 3.5 stars.

Experience Kate Campbell’s musicianship and voice up close and personal at The Colonial Theater in Canton on Aug. 3, as part of the Centennial Concert Series. You’ll be able to pick up an advance copy of For The Living Of These Days, as well as albums from her back catalog at the show.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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