Kate Campbell has emerged as a song poet of the American South, crafting such literary songs as “When Panthers Roamed in Arkansas,” “Wild Iris,” and “A Cotton Field Away” with an ear for detail and nuance that set her in company with Lucinda Williams and Nanci Griffith.
For her fifth album, though, Campbell focused on another facet of the South — protestant hymns and religious faith. Wandering Strange, due out February 20 on Nashville’s Eminent Records, fulfills a longtime interest of Campbell’s and a request from many of her fans.
“My father was a preacher,” Campbell said. “Often, in my concerts, I’d close with a gospel song — maybe “Jordan’s Stormy Banks” or something like that. And people would always come up to me and say, ’So, Kate, when are you going to do a gospel record?’
“It was something I’d always wanted to do, but I wanted it to be the right time. Last summer, it was. We went down to Muscle Shoals and we did it. It was a good thing for me personally, and everybody had a good time.”
The eleven tracks on the disc span the territory of Baptist hymns, from “Dear Little Stranger” and “The Prodigal” (RealAudio excerpt) to Campbell’s poignant original “Bear It Away,” which is a remembrance of the four young girls killed in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s Thea Street Baptist Church. There’s also a Gordon Lightfoot song on the album, “The House You Live In” (RealAudio excerpt).
Campbell came by her talents early, as she sang for her pastor father’s congregations. “Singing in church was pretty good training, in that no one threw you out or anything — which is good when you are twelve or thirteen,” she remarked about her earliest performing experiences.
She also had the chance to become steeped in the music of the Baptist hymnal.
But Campbell listened to more than hymns growing up. “I distinctly remember, as a child, learning to play Dolly Parton’s songs, ’Coat of Many Colors’ and ’In My Tennessee Mountain Home’ — I loved those songs,” she recalled.
“Another song that’s the greatest is Bobbie Gentry’s ’Ode to Billie Joe.’ The use of language is just incredible on that song, and that blues undercurrent — I don’t think there’s ever been another one like it. Then there was 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 think you can hear that influence.”
For Wandering Strange, Campbell also mentioned the influences of Al Green, Mavis Staples, the Allman Brothers, and Bob Dylan — and, of course, Elvis Presley.
“I’m a huge Elvis fan and not ashamed to say so,” she said. “I’m so intrigued by Elvis, because musically, vocally, he could put all this music together — blues, R&B, pop, gospel, country.”
Campbell drew on all those sources to revamp and rearrange the hymns of her childhood, including “Jordan’s Stormy Banks.”
“That was one of the songs I loved to sing when I was a little girl,” she said. “I didn’t really like to play it on the piano as it was written in the hymn book, but I discovered dropped D tuning on the guitar and got this kind of Celtic thing going with it, and that’s how I’d do it in concert,” Campbell said.
“For my other records, things have come together thematically, from a lyrical base, and at first these songs didn’t do that. And then it dawned on me one day, what if I just went down to Muscle Shoals and recorded the hymns I’ve always loved to sing, but done the way I’d always envisioned hearing them and singing them?”
Spooner Oldham, Walt Aldridge, and Cindy Walker were among those who joined Campbell at the Muscle Shoals gospel fest. “I thought I’d just make the record for myself and my fans,” she said, “sell it at concerts and through my website, you know. But then Eminent Records decided to bring it out, and I’m really excited about that, because more people will get to hear it.”
Campbell’s got plans for her next project, too. “I’m already writing stuff for that — I’ll be going into the studio in the summer. I plan to have a new concoction of people I haven’t worked with before, and it will be different again from this one, as this one was from [her last release] Rosaryville. I’m constantly wanting to grow and expand. It’ll be fun to see what comes up.”