Kate Campbell’s ‘Dear Little Stranger’

Musical chronicler of the South turns to old Baptist hymns.

Kate Campbell is celebrating the holiday season by releasing a Christmas CD single, “Dear Little Stranger,” from her forthcoming fifth album.

Like several other songs on the upcoming Wandering Strange, due on February 20 from Nashville’s Eminent Records, “Dear Little Stranger” (RealAudio excerpt) is Campbell’s arrangement of a turn-of-the-century Baptist hymn, this one concerned with the birth of Jesus Christ.

“I often do an encore of a gospel song at my shows,” Campbell said, “and my fans would always come up to me and say, ‘Oh, when are you going to do a gospel album?’ So we just took time to go down to Muscle Shoals [Alabama] to do it. We had a great time, and I’m really excited that Eminent’s picked it up.”

The disc contains four original songs as well as covers of gospel standards including “Jordan’s Stormy Banks” and a song by Gordon Lightfoot, “The House You Live In.”

Campbell started out her career as a professor of American history, and after a decade of making her living as a performing artist and songwriter, she’s found herself returning to the classroom for a series of recent events.

“I got to put together all the stuff I like best — songwriting, music, history, language,” she said. “I’d never done something quite like this before, and it was really exciting.”

Over the summer, Campbell taught songwriting workshops at the Swannanoa Gathering in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge. In October, she sang and spoke at a conference sponsored by the English Department at Mississippi College and did a concert and a series of workshops with poetry classes at the College of Charleston. In November, she spoke at the convention of the American Academy of Religion in Nashville.

“Really, it was a lot of different situations,” said Campbell, “and that’s cool, because it makes me learn different things.”

It’s not surprising that these groups came seeking her. Campbell is making a name for herself alongside Nanci Griffith and Lucinda Williams as a regional writer of the American South whose voice both illuminates and transcends geographical limits.

“I’m really drawn to stories, to the individual lives, to people, to figure out why we do what we do,” she said.

Campbell has shared the stage with musical legends Guy Clark and Emmylou Harris and both have appeared on her records. Her stories in song range from the wild history behind the eyes of a now quiet grandmother (“Wild Iris”) to a dialogue with a statue of the Virgin Mary in a New Orleans back street (“Porcelain Blue”) to a child’s memories of the civil rights years (“A Cotton Field Away”).

Born in New Orleans, Campbell grew up moving through Mississippi, Florida, and Tennessee, as her preacher father followed his calling, listening to music that would form the roots of her own style. Campbell finds a continuing source of lyrics in the Southern landscapes of her own past. Southern music formed her roots, too.

“I remember learning to play Dolly Parton’s songs, ‘Coat of Many Colors’ and ‘My Tennessee Mountain Home’ — I loved those songs,” Campbell said. “Another song is Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Ode to Billy Joe.’ The use of language is just incredible, and that blues undercurrent — I don’t think there’s ever been another one like it. Then there’s Janis Joplin’s version of Kris Kristofferson’s song, ‘Me and Bobby McGee.’ I played that so much that I had it completely memorized. And I’m a huge Elvis fan. I’m so intrigued by Elvis because musically, vocally, he could put all this music together — blues, R&B, pop, gospel, country — he’s why we have rock & roll.”

At first, Campbell saw herself as writing songs for others to record, but “I realized that the music was not coming across the way that I wanted it to sound. So I decided the best thing to do was to find a producer and put my music out there,” she explained.

“We put the record out ourselves, made a thousand copies, and got out a map. We drew a circle, six hours around Nashville — and we started playing.”

Compass Records eventually signed Campbell for four albums, including a reissue of her self-produced disc, Songs From the Levee, and 1999′s Rosaryville.

Campbell is working on writing songs for her next record, and plans to go into the studio in midwinter. “I’ve always been drawn to the reasons why people do things, those individual points of devotion,” she said. “I’m drawn to language, too. Most people don’t think of it that way, but art and music are forms of language. I think we all want to connect with other human beings.

“That’s what I keep coming back to,” Campbell said. “That’s what’s in the individual stories in my songs.”