Deckle edge

Kate Campbell
by Chris Flisher © 1997 /
(first published April 1997 Worcester Phoenix)

Kate Campbell
Perhaps more than any other region in the country, the South suffers under the weight of its own historic legion of myths. The results are usually a mixed bag of images, stereotypes, and misconceived notions. The romance of drooping magnolia trees and mint juleps on shady front porches flies in the face of lingering racism, poverty, and regional isolationism. To its fault, Hollywood has regularly tapped into the mythology of the South over the years and further enlivened these notions with material as widely diverse as Gone With The Wind, The Dukes Of Hazard or Deliverance.

For Mississippi born and bred, singer-songwriter, Kate Campbell, these various tags are as much a challenge as they are a boon. “The mythology of the South is one I used to worry about when I started writing and performing,” says Campbell in a recent conversation. “But I found that people were not that concerned with the issue and actually perceive these myths as just that— myths. But being a Southerner I sometimes have a difficult time getting past all the myth. We need to get past what the South was and realize what it is and not let the myth dictate the reality, because there is a real danger in the myth becoming the reality.”

Campbell bases her music on both the legends and realities. And her latest and second album, Moonpie Dreams (Compass) further extends her reputation as a Southern writer. Whether writing about life in the shadow of the Mississippi levees or the poverty of the rural farm worker, Campbell infuses her songs with a universality that transcends regional boundaries. The hopes of a young woman leaving her family and past behind surface in “See Rock City,” while the hard-learned lessons of an aging janitor come to light in “Delmus Jackson.” Elsewhere the naively comical vision of a retired engineer plays out in “Bud’s Sea-Mint Boat” as he labors away constructing a cement boat. In each case, it’s the characters and their follies, trials, and hopes that sustain the songs. No countrified “got-my-heartbroke” songs here. Instead, a glimpse at lives similar to those anywhere.

“I used to worry about being too regional,” she admits with a slow, cool drawl. “But I also realized that this is what I know. You have to write what you know or else you’ll be posing as something you’re not. In the end the regionalism thing is kind of silly on my part, because it just doesn’t matter. I’m too old to worry about what people want. I just decided to do what I do and I realized that people are the same the world over and these songs will get through to them no matter where they live.”

Campbell’s simple structured songs are usually drawn from her past. She believes that it is the renewed understanding of her memories that lends the songs their worldly appeal. “It is one thing to remember something when you are young,” she offers. “But to recall that with the eyes and knowledge of an adult, makes the whole process one of learning far more fascinating. I remember when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, but to reflect on that as a 35-year old is far different. That’s the secret, That’s the appeal. Even though everyone has their take on history, new perspectives always broaden the picture.”

Born in the heart of the country made famous by William Faulkner, Campbell regards the weighty associations lightly. The tradition of Southern writers rises from the richness of the land and the people who work the land, and although Campbell was influenced by Faulkner, it is the work of Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty that really inspired her.

“To be honest, I always found Faulkner to be a bit too depressing,” she chuckles, continuing. “It is tedious reading. I like the short stories of Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty. They both have that tendency to have simple characters that always have some subtle darkness looming in the background. That’s what makes their stories intriguing. It’s that mix of believability and darkness.”

Joining Campbell on her new album are such noted songwriters as Guy Clark who joins her on “Bud’s Sea-Mint Boat” and Native American Bill Miller. Although Campbell’s work has drawn praise from around the globe, Nashville, not surprisingly and ironically, has found her songs “too regional” for their narrow, manufactured scope. The irony rarely stops Campbell in her single-minded pursuit of her craft, deferring instead to the granddaddy of all Southern writers.

“Sure I am a regional writer,” she chuckles. “But as Mark Twain said, ‘Write what you know.’ So I do.”
Chris Flisher

Deckle edge