Released in 1995, debut album 'Songs From The Levee' quickly earned the Mississippi singer next big thing accolades from the roots music press, Campbell going on to reinforce predictions with such albums as 'Moonpie Dreams', 'Visions of Plenty' and 'Monuments'. However, she never quite managed to translate the acclaim into major commercial success, and the arrival on the scene of Gillian Welch somewhat overshadowed her brand of Southern Gothic storytelling and saw critical affections relocated. Even so, although her profile may have slipped somewhat, she's continued to release albums to critical acclaim and a loyal following, the most recent being '1000 Pound Machine', which saw her behind the piano rather than on the more customary guitar.
For this, her 16th full-length release (17th if you include her album as part of The New Agrarians) she's gone decidedly lo-tech, recording many of the basic tracks on her iPhone or variously in her living room or on the hoof around America using just a couple of mics, the 20 tracks are a mix of Campbell originals and covers, explaining the title acronym for Kate On America and the musical road-trip it encompasses.
The journey begins sitting at a stop and go, filling up time with refills, scribbling song notes while waiting on moving on, one of them presumably taking shape as the upbeat. self-penned, banjo-dappled ode to music's feelgood vibe, 'Some Song', the title a nod to the quote by 13th century Persian poet Rumi on the inner sleeve, but also referencing Lobo's 1971 hit 'Me And You And A Dog Named Boo' and Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Freebird'.
Her first stop is the New Jersey Turnpike by way of Paul Simon's 'America', though the rather lumpy Wurlitzer backing doesn't really chime with the melancholic airiness of the song, and from here it's on to the folksy 'Greensboro', another original on which, accompanied by fingerpicked acoustic guitar, she reminisces on the coming of the Quakers to the mountain foothills seeking religious freedom, the building of the railways and the Civil Rights era sit-ins. Thoughts of segregation lead to 'Lay Back The Darkness' which, borrowing its title from Edward Hirsch's poem and its tune from Woody Guthrie, heads for the Mississippi and mention of the ubiquitous crossroads of blues legend as she sings of righting wrongs and being born to trouble in troubling times.
Just to serve reminder of the thread running through the album, next up is a sprightly, rough and ready cover of Johnny Cash's country-gospel classic 'I Am A Pilgrim', Campbell strumming on guitar while Sally Van Meter provides dobro. Preceded by a spoken intro, the journey now takes her to America's most celebrated musical shrine with a spare and lovely reading of Richard Thompson's From 'Galway To Graceland'. Following the Mississippi, the road leads to New Orleans, 'the city where the music grew', for the bluesy, 'Porcelain Blue' with its image of the Crescent City moon and Spooner Oldham on organ and the tinkle of glockenspiel.
She covers a further considerable number of miles, from the coalfields of Kentucky to the California sun to be precise, in Kristofferson's 'Me and Bobby McGhee' (though, strictly speaking, the first verse actually heads for New Orleans, where she already is). She puts the road map away for the next couple, of tracks, the Gaelic-tinged, fiddle-accompanied 'Hope's Too Hard' and the old hymn, 'Jesus, Savior Pilot Me', both pleas for the strength to carry on. Oldham again on organ, Jesus is also evoked on Leonard Cohen's thematically liked anthem of endurance in the face of life's travails, 'Passing Through'.
Endurance is there again as, accompanied on fingerpicked guitar, the trip picks up in the heartlands with the self-penned 'The Locust Years' and its image of lost harvests and making it through hard times. Such experiences are enough to make you wonder what life is all about and our place in the grand scheme of things, which is precisely the theme of 'Strangeness of the Day', a beautiful contemplation of faith, the mystery of the cosmos and the miracles (such as how a voice can travel from microphone to tape) that surround us that reminds me of Kathy Mattea's 'Asking Us To Dance'.
As the journey comes to a close, the Mississippi rises again with a reference to Pulitzer-winning Mississippi author Eudora Welty, the yearning, fiddle-caressed 'Seven Miles Home' having been written for a possible production of 'The Optimist's Daughter'. And so we end where we started, returning in time to the last dance of her 1979 high school prom and, having mentioned humming it on the opening track, she closes with her own version of the immortal 'Freebird' and its thoughts of spreading wings and leaving, whether that be further down the road or beyond this existence. It's a long and winding journey of celebration and reflection through the American south, but Campbell is never less than a wonderful travelling companion. I've already prebooked my ticket for Vol 2.
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