DR spoke with musical couple, duo, and Dylan collaborators Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams in the fall of 2020. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DR: You’ve noted the importance of music as a special art form during your performances, an art form capable of building community and unifying people. Can you say anything about how that unification happens, what it looks like? Is it the lyrics that unify or the combination of the music and the lyrics?
TW: Music itself without the lyrics is the most bare-bones, close to the bone, primordial thing that reaches people. You don’t need language. Music itself, first, is the most primal. But the language—the poetry of it—can affect you the way the music affects you, but that’s after the fact of the music. The poetry can wash over you in a way that that music washes over you. Dylan is an excellent example of that.
LC: The effect of the music itself has always been the conscious and subconscious appeal to me of a song. Speaking of Bob, I heard a couple of things from his latest record. I haven’t paid much attention to what Bob’s been doing since I left the band, for various reasons. I heard a couple of songs from this latest record and you know, I gotta hand it to this guy, there’s nobody like him. And with him and his body of work right now, the music is a landscape for what he’s saying. I was able to go right to the words of what he was saying, the poetry is as moving on a subconscious level as good music is moving on a subconscious level.
TW: That’s right.
LC: I knew when I started playing with him the role of the band. Bob Dylan is unique in that Dylan and an acoustic guitar is all you need. He gets everything he is across with that. If you’re gonna be a band backing him up, then you need to be as subjective as that acoustic guitar. You can’t showboat. It’s not a place to draw attention to your skills. It’s not your place to detract in any way from the essence of what he’s putting out. It was an interesting place to be.
DR: That’s especially interesting, given that he’s always had some of the most talented people performing for him. He’s been with people who on their own can shine.
LC: I’ve never been one who appreciates the value of words like a lot of great artists do. To be a great songwriter you have to love words, or a great writer of any kind, and I’m okay with words, and they certainly do work their magic on me, but there’s a mystery in music that gets to me right away on a visceral level.
TW: It takes the melody and the lyric crossing over each other in a certain way for a song to get to me. “Boots of Spanish Leather” is one that does that for me. The melody, the lyric of that song—I don’t have words to say what it does to me.
DR: That’s a great example!
LC: There’s a maturity in that lyric writing, and a subtlety, and a nuance in the lyrics of that song. How can a young adult produce something like that? It’s mind-boggling!
TW: It’s like a ninety-year-old wrote it. But, honestly, some of it is just giftedness, and the person being open to let it channel through them. I don’t want to take anything away from anybody’s talent or intelligence. But to be open enough to let that go through you, and put it out there, takes a lot of courage and openness inside a person, to allow yourself to be that vulnerable in front of people.
LC: Yes, it’s scary. Growing up in the ‘60s with what he was putting out then, and the anthemic nature of some of those songs, that was a blatant influence on the culture, and the unity of the culture at that time. And that’s on a very conscious level. He sort of made social justice become fashionable or enabled it to become fashionable. And it wasn’t just him. But he was the primary voice.
TW: Joan Baez might beg to differ.
DR: That’s a really interesting way to put it. Because that’s where we are now.
LC: The social justice movement ended up with some sort of sex appeal because that’s what’s gonna make a universal movement. It has to have sex appeal of some sort, and I don’t mean that literally. Through that, it becomes fashionable, trendy. It starts out with the hip and Bohemian people thinking about it, and then it goes to the gay people, and then it ends up in Long Island. And once it’s there, then it universal. And then it becomes a commercial, moneymaking thing, and then the whole thing gets destroyed.
To answer your question, that on its most obvious level, “Blowin’ in The Wind” was the anthem of the time. “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” “Hard Rain,” all these tunes became anthemic to the movement. So obviously they had influence. But then his tunes that were more personal, that had nothing to do with Emmett Till or Hattie Carroll or any of those songs, they also—because of Dylan’s poetry, and because of the honesty that was used to express them, the sentiment of those songs—were so universal that they caused a unity in the listener that was every bit as potent as his political stuff. As Teresa mentioned, with “Boots of Spanish Leather,” the emotion that stirs in people is a unifying thing. So I think the answer to your question is yes.
DR: The speaker, or the voice in Dylan’s song is sometimes dismissive and, people have said, vindictive toward women. Teresa, do you have anything to say about that from the perspective of women, the voice of women, the characterization of women?
TW: Some of the songs feel vindictive for sure. I guess I never thought of it that way. I don’t remember it striking me so much, and if it did, I probably just wrote it off to, “well that’s how things are.” Seriously. Because I’m from far enough back when that was the way things were. So I’m just not calling that to mind offhand.
DR: Larry do you have any views on that?
LC: I never thought about it that way. “Like A Rolling Stone” is probably the first song that I heard that was sort of chastising in its lyric, whereas most pop music at the time was love songs or “you hurt me” songs. “Like a Rolling Stone” is pretty acerbic if you think about it. I don’t think it’s misogyny. I think he’s just painting a picture of the bitterness that’s felt when you get dumped, because that bitterness is just as much part of the relationship as the sweet love stuff that was being expressed ubiquitously, at the time, in pop music. Nobody was expressing the bitterness. I don’t see that as misogyny. All the years I was around Bob, I never got the impression that misogyny was any part of his personality.
TW: Sometimes I’m taken aback by the level of vitriol, and it’s so well-crafted that it’s like, “ouch.” But that goes back to being open enough to put it out there. It helps somebody through something. All that stuff does, if you ask me. It all gets out there for a reason, and I think that if somebody’s going through something, a song will get them through.
DR: Can you talk about conveying the meaning of Dylan’s music as a guitarist?
LC: There’s nothing Bob Dylan needs to express himself other than him and his acoustic guitar. And if you’re going to add more instruments to that, and I’m going to be the guitar player whose role it is to enhance what he’s putting out, then you have to think on the minimal level as an instrumentalist. One time I was thinking about trying to do a guitar instrumental album of Bob Dylan songs. The problem I ran up against is that his stuff is really not that melodic. He’s certainly written memorable melodies, like “Just Like A Woman,” but it’s not like a McCartney tune, or a Paul Simon tune, where the melody is memorable. And the music with Bob has always seemed to me like a vehicle that gets his art out there, rather than the music itself being the art.
TW: What I keep being reminded of as we’re talking is my Meisner training as an actor. One of the tenets was: the words you’re speaking are riding on the river of emotion. Words aren’t really what’s going on, it’s the emotion underneath. So the words, the music, it’s all riding on that emotion. You can say the words are riding on the lyrics, the lyrics are riding on the melody; it’s all riding over the emotion. That image just keeps coming to mind. The words are the canoe riding over the river, which is, the river of emotion.
LC: As a guitarist you gotta be part of that river, you know. You don’t want to be another canoe on that river. You just want to be—
TW: In the canoe!
LC: When we performed, Bob would have really good tunes that were just fun to play, that had nothing to do with anything, except the fun of getting up there, and banging on the guitars. We would do a bunch of traditional tunes that weren’t Bob Dylan songs, and there you felt like you had more license to play your instrument in a more permanent way. But with his songs, even if you were taking a solo in one of his songs, you knew on some level you shouldn’t try to compete with his lyrics.
DR: Larry, having had an integral role in his band, what do you think is the source of his ability to captivate a crowd?
LC: His honesty. That’s it. Honesty and authenticity.
TW: That goes back to being vulnerable enough to do that. That’s some kind of courage to me.
DR: How is a Dylan performance, from a performer’s point of view, different from other performances, for example, like the Grateful Dead, or playing with Levon, or is there any difference?
LC: There’s no difference. All of that is an opportunity to communicate through the vehicle of great music, so that’s all the same. Teresa and I did a bunch of touring with Phil Lesh and that was about no parameters. Phil would even say when we got on stage, “You gotta remember, there’s no such thing as mistakes, only opportunities,” which means just get up there and play, and play, and keep playing until you feel, and connect with each other, and as we are connecting with each other, we will connect with the audience, and there were no rules. The only rule was listen to each other. And with Levon, in not so much of an anarchic way, it was still about all of us being in this together, we’re all contributing, were all on equal footing up here. And now playing with Bob, it wasn’t about an equal footing, and you got into that knowing that.
TW: And that’s okay because that’s a different animal. Like you said, Larry, him and the guitar is really the focal point. Even when it was the rock ‘n’ roll band. And your role was to support that.
LC: And there was no resentment at all. I was glad to be part of something like that because his volume of work deserves that, and on my own personal level, after eight years of that, I knew that I had to put myself in situations where I had a broader opportunity to express myself.
TW: And what you did with Bob was part of being a journeyman, no matter what level of musician you are, in supporting something like that, that moves the artist like that, like you’ve described being in Spain, being on stage, and you guys doing something like “Blowin’ in The Wind.” It’s part of why you become a musician, to be part of something that moves an artist like that. Journeyman is kind of the right word. Crossman.
DR: There must be incredible fatigue that goes with that kind of life.
TW: You can’t even imagine. Can I just say with Levon, without saying it out loud, he required honesty. He was the North Star musically, and he was a touchstone for me as an actor, and a musician, and a singer, before I ever dreamed that I would meet him and work with him or any of that. He is a touchstone for me as an artist. If anyone ever asks me who’s my favorite actor-singer, I would say Levon, because the honesty level is painful. It would just slay you. He expected everybody to bring their game and pull the others up by doing it. And it was very freeing working with him. He wants you to bring it, don’t stand back, and it was liberating, and encouraging.
LC: And that’s connecting to each other on the stage, and through that we connect to the audience, and the connection to the audience comes back to you, and that’s a cycle that just keeps feeding on itself.
DR: You’ve both won accolades for Americana music. From your perspective Teresa, especially as a female artist, how do you see Dylan’s influence, and his place, and relative to where you are in that genre?
TW: I think it’s not for nothing that the Band was working with him, and the Band is known for being the first Americana band. As far as Americana goes, for me the great love of my life is that I got to work with Levon. One of the most exciting things when I first saw Dylan was when Larry was playing with him. I was taken by the fact that he played any genre he wanted to play during the show. It was bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll, folk, showtunes. That was so freeing for me because I love so many different genres. When I was starting out, I was thinking, “which genre should I do?” Those folk people were also ensconced in Harry Smith, and all those field recordings, all that stuff. I like to quip that I was the person in the field. I grew up with that stuff. What went down was really raw. We literally were the people in the field. People would say, how did you get with these people (Levon, Phil)? My upbringing was certainly not as a Deadhead. It was so remote from where I am now, down here with my parents. That world was like another planet. I didn’t even know about it. As an adult, to discover that stuff that they were really digging into, that Jerry was really bringing to that band, was that stuff that we were singing in church when I was growing up. So when I first started working with Phil, it was like, “Oh yeah, I know that song.” It wasn’t the stretch that I would’ve thought.
I’m basically doing now what my parents taught me to do in the living room when I was growing up: the Joan Baez version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” with my little Yamaha guitar. And then I end up working with Levon. You just can’t make this up. And he grew up just over the river from us. And he has a set of great-grandparents that came from right here where I grew up.
LC: Regarding his place in the genre, Bob is ground zero. Bob and then The Band—ground zero for what has become the Americana genre. And that’s because what he did and what they did was take all these disparate American genres, everything that’s organically American, blues, country, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, Cajun, jazz, all the stuff that is uniquely American, and they threw it all into this big pot, mixed it up, and came out with a whole different style of music that’s been emulated and refined and expanded.
And when Bob was at his height, and The Band was at their height, I was a fan of both of them, but during that time of my musical life I was obsessed with the roots of what these guys were doing. I wanted to hear Robert Johnson, I wanted to hear Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, George Jones, Hank Williams. I was into the whole Bakersfield thing, chipped teeth and sideburns: country music. I was obsessed with that stuff from the origin. And it took mining all that stuff as deeply as I could to then really appreciate what Bob was doing and what The Band was doing.
DR: Do performers have any responsibility in getting various musical messages across to the audience?
LC: I think the performer has a responsibility to move the audience. The audience is paying money to have an emotional experience with the performer. And if that comes from directly from the vibrations that are coming from the music that they are making, and that’s the only message that’s getting across, then as long as it’s moving the audience, then the responsibility has been met. From the perspective of people coming to see Bob Dylan, someone who has done plenty of political messaging and social messaging, it’s the same. His only responsibility yet is to give the audience what his honest artistic output is, so if that at the time is encoding social and political messaging, then great. But if not, if it’s just love songs or just hate songs, or if it’s just bluegrass songs, and that’s what he’s feeling artistically, then that’s his responsibility—to put that forth to the best of his ability, in any performance.
TW: That’s exactly what I was going to say. Your responsibility is, if you’re feeling compelled to share something, then it’s got to be the truth, through you, whatever you’re compelled to share truthfully. You’re just sharing the truth as it’s coming through you.
It’s that performer’s truth. Like if Steve Earle needs to expound on some political wrong, that’s his truth in the moment. If it’s melody, just music without the lyrics, that’s what you should share. If it’s a political statement, and it’s your burden to share, then that’s your burden to share. And you have to tell that as truthfully as you can.
LC: And as far as getting a specific message across to an audience, I don’t see that per se as the responsibility of the performer. That’s the responsibility of a politician, or a preacher, a lecturer, but as Teresa just said a performer’s responsibility is to emotionally express the truth of what they are feeling.
DR: What Dylan songs do you play together, if any, and why those songs?
LC: We do “Boots of Spanish Leather” occasionally and we do “Wallflower” because it’s a perfect little country tune that we sing together well.
TW: We play “Cry A While” during a benefit concert that’s put on around Dylan’s birthday to benefit schools in the area. It’s kind of fun and it has some vitriol in it, but with humor. I enjoy doing that because it goes a little bit in the blues direction.
LC: And Teresa sings that and it’s interesting because it’s a different song when a woman is singing it. And Teresa sings the hell out of it.
TW: We also do “I Shall Be Released” and “Forever Young.”
DR: Given the pandemic and the disruption in live performances, in your opinion, does music matter less or more now?
LC: I’d like to know the answer to that question.
TW: Music is always going to matter. It’s primal. It’s a soother. It’s a happy dance. It’s a common thing. It’s a nostalgic thing. It can reach inside people who are deep in dementia or trapped in their own bodies for some other physical reason. It can reach inside those people and move them. Music is vital.
LC: Given that, music does matter more now than ever, or any art form for that matter, because of its ability to be the glue that binds people together. And it enables them to express the insecurity they are feeling, to express the loneliness they may be feeling, to express the fear they may be feeling. It’s because of this time we’re going through. I think it’s always needed as Teresa said, but now that need has been heightened to a pretty high degree.
TW: It binds us all together and reminds us that we’re all human. We all go through these emotions. It’s the key sometimes to your soul. It’s a common foundation. All that’s going on, the pandemic, the social unrest, the political unrest: music can remind us that we’re all human and we’re all in this together.
DR: Do performers have special leadership responsibilities in this crisis especially during lockdown, and if so, then how can they fulfill them?
TW: Thinking about the responsibility they have—it doesn’t change the responsibility of delivering the truth as it’s being given to them in the moment of their need to express something. They just express that truth. That alone is a leadership move and there are plenty of ways to get it out there. And people at home have more time on their hands, typically, to find the output with digital. I hate that it’s digital, until we can all be together again.
LC: I completely agree with the view that performers have a responsibility to tell the truth. That is the responsibility. As far as being leaders in navigating through this pandemic, I don’t see that as responsibility, so much as if you endeavor to take that responsibility, you do it with honesty. I don’t think there’s any sin in well-known performers wanting to sit back and hide during this time. I don’t think they’re obliged to have any sort of leadership role or comforting output or anything. But I do think that anyone who does set out to take a leadership role needs to do it with complete openness and honesty. That’s the responsibility.
TW: The responsibility is if you have a talent and gift that way and you’re feeling driven inside from whatever, spiritual thing you want to say, to make art, that’s your responsibility to do it. And to me if you don’t, it’s kind of like slapping God in the face if you ignore it. But as far as politically or leading the world, no. I think the responsibility is within you, and what is driving you and getting your truth out. And beyond that, it lands where it’s supposed to land.
LC: I concur.
DR: With regard to Dylan’s music, does the ambiguous and sometimes cryptic nature of the lyrics make it impossible to determine a simple message?
LC: In a cranial sense yes, but in an emotional sense that’s the beauty of it. Because if you allow yourself to be immersed in what he is saying and get away from the cranial part, the beauty of most of his lyric writing is that you can produce your own video in your mind of what he’s trying to say. Then it becomes what it means to you, and that’s because though it’s cryptic and sometimes ambiguous and difficult to follow sometimes, it’s always poetry, and poetry of the highest order. It’s Teresa’s appreciation for poetry that has gotten me to understand it a little bit better, to understand how this stuff can work on you through the subconscious and not look for a literal translation. Just ruminate on what this particular phrase does to you and how it’s connected to all the other phrases in the song. But that’s what’s so enigmatic about his art. If you open yourself up, that stuff’s going to have an effect on you.
TW: If it’s something from the artist’s subconscious putting that down, then it is sheer poetry. To try to combat it from the cranial place is wrong from the get-go. It’s like the interviewer said to Robert Hunter, “We don’t understand what this line means,” and he flatly said, “It’s poetry.” I think that if you’re just putting the honest thing that’s coming through you down, it’s like a painting. It means a different thing to different people. The subject is different to different people. But when performer gives you thirty minutes of how and where and when and why they wrote the song, to me, it destroys the song. And we do it too. I will tell why a song means something to me. Larry tells why he wrote a song—he may say that on stage—but to me you do a disservice, even though it’s juicy to hear. You want a blank slate so it can mean whatever, without you layering over your own interpretation. It’s not your interpretation. It’s what it does to that person. What goes through their soul, which is the point of a piece of art.
LC: Look at a song like “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” What the hell does that mean: “Whoo-ee! Ride me high / Tomorrow’s the Day / My bride’s gonna come . . . We gonna fly / Down in the easy chair.” What the hell does that mean? It doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter. There’s something about it that conjures up pictures in your mind, and those pictures lead to a certain emotional experience. That’s what the words are supposed to do. Bob could have written that just to parody himself. I don’t know that, but I think he went through a phase of writing nonsense because he was Bob Dylan and people had all these expectations about how profound his lyric writing is.
TW: And it still evokes emotion.
DR: With regard to the Johnny Cash/Bob Dylan connection, didn’t that help Dylan gain traction in the South?
LC: It did with some people, but it helped Johnny Cash more in the Dylan world than it helped Dylan in the Johnny Cash world.
TW: Yeah I think that’s right. The hero here in the South was Johnny Cash. We watched that show religiously. And the Carter family singing behind them. The Dead wasn’t that big down here either. And the people that Larry and I have played with were really more East Coast, West Coast, Northeast, Northwest. Around here, people really don’t appreciate that music.
DR: Do you feel like knowing Bob Dylan makes it more difficult to hear songs with detachment?
LC: It did for a while, but I’m past that now. I’m back to where I can see him as two different entities. There is Bob who I got to know, and then there’s Bob who has been, in my opinion, our most important artist of the latter twentieth century.
After I left the band, I wasn’t interested in hearing Bob Dylan music anymore. Not because of any bitterness or anything like that, but just because the mystique had worn off. But now with enough distance—and these embers have been stirred by his last body of work, listening to some of that stuff, the JFK thing—there’s no denying, the guy is unique. There’s nobody like him, and his ability to tell the truth on a subconscious level is surpassed by no one.
DR: How would you characterize Dylan’s impact on not only your careers but on American music at large?
LC: There is no more important artist in American music at large and on my career. Playing with him all those years and delving through his music gave me license to accept and embrace my own creativity because I was around someone who uses that talent in the most artful way. Through osmosis it gave me license to follow the path that I wanted to follow.
TW: Larry made a nonverbal commitment to not be on the road anymore. You know the road is destructive to family life.
LC: I was having a very lucrative career as a studio musician, which had been my ambition from the beginning. So I was in this frame of mind that I wasn’t going to go out on tour. I was going to stay in New York and do this. And then Jeff Kramer called me, and said that Bob wanted me to come down and play with him, and I said no. And the next morning I woke up and said, “What did I just do!” So I called Kramer back and told him I was reconsidering. The studio work, as lucrative as it was, and as interesting as it could be, you’d be hired to play stuff that you wouldn’t play in a million years, because it meant nothing to you, but you’re getting paid to do it so you do it. With Bob, and subsequently since then, I’ve been allowed to stay true to who I am as an artist.
TW: Two weeks after Larry left the band, Levon called Larry, and then Amy had heard me and Larry play, and then she called me up to work on the record that they had called on Larry to produce. So as far as how it affected the career, the sequence of events that followed: following your heart about things, like Larry did when he broke his own rule about not going on tour again and going out with Bob, is like sticking to your art. It will lead to beautiful places in your own life. All of those things gave us a platform to evolve our own thing.
LC: Levon gave us a great sandbox to play in, to hone what she and I could be.
TW: He wanted everybody to step up and bring your whole game. Even me meeting Larry was because I stepped out on a limb and sent a tape I had from a couple of demos I did in Nashville. A friend of a friend helped me get a band together to do it. It took my brother dying for me to decide to do something with this music. I plucked up my nerve and sent them in to a contest. That’s how I met Larry, through a friend of a friend. Do what you love to do and be true to yourself first. From Dylan, to Levon, to us as our own thing together.