Larry Campbell is known for his masterful work on the acoustic guitar and other stringed instruments, but he’s always fashioned himself a songwriter. Problem was, he never really gave it an honest try until spending most of the last two decades playing music alongside Bob Dylan and Levon Helm.
“You take the people that you admire and who really inspire you, and you just let them fuel your own personal expression,” Campbell said by phone from the New York home that he shares with his wife, the singer Teresa Williams, who was also on the call. They perform Thursday night at One Longfellow Square in Portland and will play many of the songs that Campbell wrote for their debut self-titled CD on Red House Records.
They play acoustic Americana music with influences of country, blues, rock and folk.
Campbell credits Dylan for showing him the way as a songwriter and his wife for inspiring him. From Dylan, he learned to express whatever he is feeling in a poetic way and to trust his creative voice. From his wife, he gained his muse.
“She turned out to be somebody who inspired me to create, and I could imagine performing something I had written,” he said.
“As far as Bob goes, viscerally what it feels to me that he does, he goes deep inside himself and comes out with this form of expression, which is completely unique and individualistic. That’s what I am assuming he does and what I try to do myself. I am not expecting to attain the level of artistic accomplishment that he was able to attain or the prolific journey he has taken. I can’t try to emulate that. But I can strive for it.”
Campbell spent eight years as Dylan’s primary guitarist, beginning in 1997. That period marked Dylan’s most recent creative renaissance, and many fans credit Campbell for influencing Dylan’s return to his acoustic and country roots during that period and for tightening the band’s sound in its live shows.
Together, Campbell and Williams have a remarkable resume. Between them, they’ve played with Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Phil Lesh, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, Rosanne Cash and Mavis Staples. For seven years, they both performed with Helm as part of his hopping house band for his Midnight Rambles at his barn and studio in Woodstock, New York. Helm, who died in 2012, was the former drummer and vocalist with The Band.
Campbell won three Grammy Awards for his work with Helm and a Lifetime Achievement Award for his instrumental work from the Americana Music Association.
Williams grew up in Tennessee and always appreciated the Southern soul that Helm brought to The Band. An Arkansan, Helm retained his southern accent in his singing voice, something that Williams noticed when she heard him sing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” on the radio.
“I couldn’t believe they were singing about us and from our perspective. I grew up in the same culture Levon grew up in, in the cotton patch,” said Williams. “He sounds like all the people I grew up with. He was just pure honesty. That’s what we strive for. I never dreamed I would meet him or work with him. Things just fall in your lap. It was just a true labor of love. I cherished every moment. I was able to be fully present at every show, all the moments with him. When he died, it was a great personal loss and a musical loss.”
Dylan’s longtime bass player, Tony Garnier, introduced Campbell to Helm. Helm invited Garnier to the Lone Star Cafe in New York City to sit in with his blues band. Garnier asked Campbell to come along. Campbell and Helm became friends and collaborators.
“When I left Bob’s band, Levon called and said, ‘Hey man, we are making music in Woodstock. Why don’t you come on up?’ He was just getting the Rambles started,” Campbell said.
That began “the deepest and most gratifying musical relationship I ever had, and it gave Teresa and I a petri dish to develop what we do. Levon was completely magnanimous — everyone should have the opportunity to shine and everyone should contribute. He gave Teresa and I all this latitude to develop this thing we do now and to continue with making music for the joy of making music, for no other ulterior motive or reason. That was the greatest thing we all took out of that.”
It translates into what they are doing now. Their record, released in 2015, is rooted in the same acoustic-blues-rock mix that Helm personified. It feels churchly and natural.
For Campbell, songwriting completes his musical self. It makes him whole, and it flourished when he surrounded himself with songwriters and musicians he most admired.
“I finally accepted the fact that I could write what I wanted to write,” he said. “For me, writing music is simple. I can do it all day. Chords and melodies come to me all the time. But writing lyrics that I can walk around and lift my head up about, that’s hard work. It’s really hard work.”
Here’s a live clip of the duo performing the song “Did You Love Me At All”
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: One Longfellow Square, 181 State St., Portland
TICKETS & INFO: $23; onelongfellowsquare.com or 761-1757