Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams

Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams

Multi-instrumentalist-singer-songwriter Larry Campbell and singer-guitarist Teresa Williams’ acclaimed eponymous 2015 debut, released after seven years of playing in Levon Helm’s band – and frequent guesting with Phil Lesh, Little Feat, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, brought to the stage the crackling creative energy of a decades-long offstage union. A whirlwind of touring and promo followed, and when the dust cleared, the duo was ready to do it all again. Which brings us to Contraband Love, a riskier slice of Americana.

Larry, who produced Contraband Love, says, “I wanted this record to be a progression, bigger than the first one. That’s all I knew. I wanted the songwriting to be deeper, the arrangements more interesting, the performances more dynamic. Specifically how to get there, I didn’t know. I did know the songs were different. The subject matter was darker than anything else I’ve written.”

“More painful!” Teresa says, and laughs.

“Yeah,” Larry says with a smile. “I’m proud of our debut, but I felt like the songs were lighter than what I’m capable of doing. As a songwriter, I aspire to a sense of uniqueness: this is a great song and it could only have been written by me. I want to get there. It’s a journey, a goal, a pursuit. The mechanics of that pursuit are figuring out what you need to do to surpass your last body of work.”

Although it was not his conscious intent, three of the eight tunes Campbell penned for Contraband Love deal either obliquely or directly with various emotions surrounding addiction. For the blues rocking “Three Days in A Row,” he authoritatively delves into the crucial first seventy-two hours directly following an addict going cold turkey in an effort to get clean. “I was thinking about the things I’ve quit in my life,” he says. “The last time was cigarettes. I remembered the dreams I had in withdrawal.” Vintage-sounding country nugget “Save Me from Myself” (featuring Little Feat’s Bill Payne on piano) explores a troubled soul’s heartrending knowledge that they are hard to love. “I’ve certainly felt both sides of that situation,” Larry says, “and observed it many times.” Delicate waltz “Contraband Love,” a captivating vocal showcase for Teresa, takes on the other side of the story, when a parent (or spouse, or friend, etc.) realizes their only recourse for dealing with an addict is merely to stand “with arms wide open.” Of this remarkable piece, Larry says, “That melody would not leave me alone. It’s one of the more unique songs I’ve ever written.”

“Larry’s writing this stuff,” Teresa says, “and we’re naming off all the people in our lives who are currently going through this (addiction and loss) with a loved one, not to mention the family members and friends we’ve lost in the past from this affliction. That may have driven him. One of my oldest, most intimate friends – a functioning substance abuser since he was a teenager – died on the street in New York while we were in the studio. We dedicated the album to him.”

“The stuff of loss resonates,” Larry says.

Musically, Contraband Love revisits the Americana textures of the duo’s debut, deftly channeling Memphis, Chicago, the Delta, and Appalachia with equal assurance. Larry’s world-famous guitar work – scorching here, funky there, stellar always – punctuates the proceedings with riveting emotion, often like a third voice weighing in on a myriad of emotional states.

The barnburner leadoff single, “Hit and Run Driver,” is a harrowing-but-rocking survivor’s tale, showcasing longtime drummer and engineer/mixer Justin Guip.

To leaven out the darker tunes, Larry and Teresa added a recording of the reassuring Carl Perkins country classic “Turn Around,” with old friend and mentor Levon Helm, captured on drums shortly before his passing. Jaunty folk blues “My Sweetie Went Away,” features new bass player Jesse Murphy doubling on tuba for a distinctly New Orleans feel; traditional gutbucket country blues “Delta Slide,” is spiced with irresistible, harmonized yodeling.

“Stylistically, there’s a lot of different things going on,” Larry says. “So the sequencing was difficult. But I think I got it right.”

Indeed. Contraband Love stands as a new, bolder chapter in a story that arose triumphantly joyous from loss. “When Levon died,” Teresa says, “that put Larry into high gear. He’d already had his head set about making a record, but then it felt like a train took off! We just said, ‘life is short.’”

Another motivator for creating Contraband Love was the experience of taking the Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams show out on the road, as a duo, with a band, and opening for Jackson Browne (who loaned them his band). “It felt fabulous and fantastic,” Larry says. “After I met Teresa (in the mid 80s), I’d be out with Bob Dylan [Larry toured with the Nobel laureate for eight years] and something was missing. I gotta gig, and it’s what I always wanted, but it’s not my stuff, and it’s not with the person I want to be with. And then, when we got a taste of being a performing duo at the Rambles with Levon, the idea that we could expand on that was completely alluring.

“So virtually everything we’ve done musically since I left Dylan’s band, we’ve been asked to do together: Levon, Phil and Friends, Jorma and Jack, Little Feat; we’ve done it all as a unit, a duo, and it’s great. It’s rewarding on a lot of levels. The way I see it, when Teresa and I are together, doing our material for people who come to see us, then everything I ever wanted out of life is pretty well complete.”

Ed Romanoff

Ed Romanoff could be a character in one of his own songs. A chronicler of American
experience whose voice recalls the grit of Kris Kristofferson and the wit of Guy Clark, the
New York singer-songwriter pens wise, big-hearted, occasionally whimsical, usually
melancholic tunes about lonely souls and romantic dreamers, lost lovers and coy ghosts,
a bank robber and even the Elephant Man himself. Not only does Romanoff sympathize
with the crew of outsiders and outlaws on his new album The Orphan King (coming
February 23, 2018 on PineRock Records), but he also belongs among their ranks: an
artist who has spent a lifetime drifting from job to job, steadfastly refining his craft for
years on a 75 dollar Yamaha guitar, following his own compass, and solving his own
Romanoff admits he started late. “My father was tone deaf,” he says, “so I always
thought I was, too.” Instead of music, he tended bar in Virginia and branded cattle in
Wyoming before eventually founding PineRock, a production firm in New York City.
When he finally decided to pursue music in his forties, he became a diligent student,
writing constantly and performing wherever and whenever he could. He spent time in
Nashville taking songwriting classes and attending workshops with Darrell Scott, Beth
Nielson Chapman, and Mary Gauthier, who later invited him to go on the road. Before
he even had an album with his name on the spine, Romanoff was touring the world.
Romanoff’s unconventional journey gave him a different perspective from other
songwriters, a different set of rules and a different voice. His 2012 self-titled debut,
produced by Crit Harmon (Lori McKenna, Martin Sexton), won the Nashville Songwriters
Song of the Year and later that year Romanoff joined Steve Earle and James McMurtry
as a winner of the Kerrville New Folk Competition. Since then, Romanoff has been
working on a follow-up, amassing a stockpile of gracefully observed and eloquently
sturdy songs. He didn’t have to stray far from his home in Woodstock to record them;
instead, he worked with Simone Felice at the producer’s barn studio in Palenville, New
York, just a few miles down the road.
The pair corralled an impressive roster of locals to flesh out the songs, including
Romanoff’s longtime friend and touring mate Rachael Yamagata, Kenneth Pattengale of
the Milk Carton Kids, guitarist Cindy Cashdollar (Dylan’s Time Out of Mind), The E Street
Band’s Cindy Mizelle, and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, along with Larry’s wife
and duo partner, Teresa Williams. Together, they forged rootsy and eccentric
arrangements for Romanoff’s songs, heightening the wee-hours longing of “The Night Is
a Woman” and supernatural melancholy of “Miss Worby’s Ghost.” Campbell, whom
Romanoff credits with providing “the backbone of the album,” lends a fierce guitar solo
to “The Ballad of Willie Sutton,” turning the coda into a gothic car chase across some
mythic American plain.

The Orphan King reveals an artist alive to the serendipity of songwriting: those flashes of
insight and inspiration, often accidental, that convey ideas and feelings unique to this
medium. He co-wrote the title track, which sounds as lonely as a graveside eulogy after
everyone has left for the reception, about his close relationship with his father. Imagine
his surprise when, several years later, a DNA test sent him reeling: “I had spent my life
idolizing my dad, and believing I was Russian, but the test said I was Irish. My father
wasn’t my father.”
The revelation sent him into a depression so deep that he barely left his apartment for
months. When he returned to “The Orphan King,” written before he know his own
story, he found the song’s sense of loss even more acute and the sense of connection
even stronger, the words of the refrain resonating like a personal mantra: “I still believe
in love.”
Not every song on The Orphan King is quite so autobiographical. In fact, the album
shows Romanoff as a writer with an eye for the telling historical detail and an
imagination attuned to the whimsical. His fascination with Joseph Merrick inspired “The
Elephant Man,” a humanizing portrait of a man known for his deformities but, in
Romanoff’s hands, is granted a rare dignity to explore his intense yearning for life and
finds love in the form of a very tall carnival worker. “I felt if I could have him meet
somebody who was just as much an outsider as he was, then they could be together.”
The song became an act of compassion and empathy, as Romanoff imagines a happy
ending for the unusual couple: “I’m gonna build a car with Ferris wheel tires, leave extra
headroom to reach the stars. World’s largest truck, well, it will be ours as we go rolling
into history.”
Songs like “Without You” and “Leavin’ With Someone Else” can break your heart, but
Romanoff has a knack for the well-earned happy ending. He obviously loves his
characters, and he listens to what they tell him. He turns his songs into receptacles for
their dearest dreams, investing them with generosity and humanity. Romanoff’s first
draft of the novelistic “Golden Crown,” about a boxer in Ireland, culminated in a grisly
finale. “But I felt like this guy was saying, I don’t want to die in a river with a ring in my
pocket. So I wrote what he wanted me to write. A lot of these songs ended up being
about things I could identify in my own life, but I had to let these people tell their own
There’s something radical about the happy endings on The Orphan King, perhaps
because there are so few happy endings in the late 2010s. “I almost canceled the rest of
the sessions just after the election,” he admits. “I didn’t feel like l could sing. I was too
anxious”. As Leonard Cohen had just died, Ed was thinking about Cohen’s song “First We
Take Manhattan” and sat down to write “Coronation Blues,” the final song on the
record. It was, he admits, a rant written from the perspective of a mad king. It’s a
damning bit of political commentary of recent political events as well as a reminder that
making music is a radical act.

“For all these songs, I think if I got anything right, it was allowing each character to have
their own voice . I was trying to find out what their truth was.”
Quietly ambitious yet undeniably accomplished, The Orphan King seeks to square up
heartbreak with hope, alienation with acceptance, tribulation with an unkillable belief in
love. “I wanted to make something beautiful out of something that just felt awful. I
want nothing more than to make people smile and feel like they’re not alone. That’s
what music has always done for me.”

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