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Songwriting as Storytelling: An Interview with Kate Campbell

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“Write what you know.” This bit of knowledge came to Kate Campbell early in her music career, and it is something she said has become a rule for her songwriting.

This bit of knowledge came to Kate Campbell early in her music career, and it is something she said has become a rule for her songwriting.

She’s got a master’s in southern history. She’s married. She entered the world of songwriting and singing when she was 30 years old.

She didn’t start out as the typical starving 19-year-old aspiring singer/songwriter, waiting tables to get by, making tips to feed her music habit, sleeping on acquaintances’ floors, living out of her car, groveling at the feet of every musical nobody trying to meet the “right people.”

This is what many expect when they hear of songwriters trying to “make it” in places like New York, Los Angeles and Nashville—Music City.

Singing in church was part of Campbell’s early training.

“I wrote songs for God, for church,” she said. “It never entered my mind to write for anyone else” … at least not until she started marketing her music to the Christian music industry.

“Initially I thought I should make Christian records,” she said. “But the Christian industry didn’t get my songs.”

In 1991, Campbell met with George King of Diadem Music Group and after listening to her play for two hours, he told her “you don’t belong on CCM (Contemporary Christian Music).”

“He told me to go down to the Bluebird Café and try out. He told me to ‘write what you know.'”

Campbell played at the Bluebird, a popular Nashville country and acoustic “listening room” and cafe, and still plays there from time to time. “And CCM Magazine has reviewed all of my records since,” she said.

Stories from the South

Realizing she could survive in the secular music industry was a saving grace for Campbell.

“My music is not about me being a Christian,” she said. “It’s not about evangelism. Writing songs is about telling a story.”

Her fascination with everyday people and strong southern roots make Campbell a compelling and vivid storyteller.

Writing what she knows means writing about southern life.

Campbell has spent her life in the South—born in New Orleans, living in Sledge, Miss. as a child, attending college in Alabama and now residing in Nashville, Tenn. Not only is Campbell a true-blue southerner, but her daddy is a Baptist preacher.

Campbell said her father was a very open-minded pastor during the civil rights movement.

“He was very open to all people,” she said. “‘You should love people no matter what.’ I got that from my dad.”

When Nashville made the move to desegregate its schools, Campbell was bussed—with many other white children in her Donelson neighborhood—to a predominantly black school in downtown Nashville.

Campbell recalls that school experience as a positive one. “That was one of the best things my dad did for me,” Campbell said of her father’s decision to keep her in public school and make her ride the bus downtown. She writes about it in her song “Bus 109” on her Visions of Plenty album.

“Many other families did not want their kids being bussed off to another school, so they put them in private school,” Campbell said.

This experience, along with others, bled over into Campbell’s songwriting. Her descriptions of life in the South during the civil rights movement paint a chilling, yet innocent picture of the past.

“Very few southerners write about civil rights,” Campbell said. “I write about what I experienced as a child, not as a teenager, not as a folksinger.”

For this reason, Campbell’s stories about southern life during the civil rights movement reflect a touch of innocence and curiosity about what was going on.

In her song, “Crazy in Alabama,” she describes standing in line at the Dairy Dip where “white folks” lined up in front while the side was for the “colored line.” She writes about going to the swimming pool on hot summer days. The white kids played in the cool water while black children watched through the fence. “It never made one bit of sense,” she says in the song.

“Crazy in Alabama” depicts an Alabama on the verge of revolution, complete with visions of marchers, fighting and even references to George C. Wallace and Martin Luther King Jr.—all through the eyes of a child.

Once, when Campbell sang “Crazy in Alabama” at a show, a man approached her afterwards. “This man was in JROTC and was at the University of Alabama when George Wallace stood in the doorway. Kids his age spit in his face and yelled at him,” she said.

“Southerners should be leading the rest of the nation on race relations … if only they were willing to discuss these things,” Campbell said. “People will listen to a song about poverty, race relations, land and heritage. They will see it more in art.”

In “A Cotton Field Away,” on the Songs From The Levee album, Campbell sings about that place that separates people. “If we could see beyond the clouds, we both might be on common ground,” she wrote.

Look Away

Campbell said that part of why getting a degree in southern history was important to her was because she wanted to know where she came from.

“Studying [southern history] was really about a dialogue with myself,” she said. “It was part of my personal quest that helped me to stop compartmentalizing the South, music and history. I needed to combine them.”

Part of that journey included “appreciating the good and reconciling the shame and guilt” attached to southern life.

In her song, “Look Away,” Campbell gives the listener a glimpse of this struggle between pride and shame: “It’s a long and slow surrender retreating from the past. It’s important to remember to fly the flag at half-mast and look away.”

“I remember going to camp in California in 8th grade,” Campbell said. “The kids asked me if we (southerners) wore shoes to school and if we liked black people.”

People have some interesting and strange ideas about the South, Campbell said. “We know everyone thinks we are rednecks.”

Campbell said the decision by Mississippians to keep the confederate symbol on their flag keeps these perceptions alive.

But, people outside of the South need to “let it go,” she said. “If it is keeping Mississippi from moving forward they should take the damn thing down, but let them decide.”
Campbell said old southern symbols die hard.

“It’s like losing your place,” she said. “Poor whites [thought they] were still better than blacks … what if that is gone? These people want a voice too.”

“That’s the place of art in the south … to describe life.”

Capitalism and Religion

Religion is an inherent part of southern culture, Campbell said. “Even if you weren’t raised in church you knew hymns. It is just part of the culture.”

Campbell said sometimes people get carried away with this integration of religion into culture especially when dealing with “weird notions of capitalism and religion.”

“I was driving through North Carolina one day and I came across a sign that read ‘Jesus and Tomatoes Coming Soon,'” Campbell said. “It was a great illustration of the place of religion in the South.”

“What is it about a person that causes them to feel the need to include religion in their signs, even about selling tomatoes?”

Two years later Campbell heard about a bun at a coffee shop in Nashville that looked like Mother Theresa. This mixing of religion and culture is common in the South.

“I don’t have some agenda that says you shouldn’t sell the Gospel … I’m not for or against it,” Campbell said. “I’m just pointing out that it is there and people should think about it.”

That’s exactly what she does in her humorous song, “Jesus and Tomatoes.”

Catholic Conversations

A person looking at and listening to Campbell’s Rosaryville album might wonder about the Roman Catholic overtones in the artwork and influence in the songwriting. What’s a Protestant southerner writing an album like this for?

Campbell’s husband, Ira, is a chaplain at a Nashville hospital. That is how she met Father John, a Catholic chaplain at the same hospital.

“This whole record (Rosaryville) is based on my conversation and experiences with [Fr. John],” Campbell said. Their conversations compelled her to explore the Catholic faith and helped her develop a perspective on liturgy.

“Catholicism is very important to me in my personal devotions,” Campbell said. Although she is content attending her Baptist church when she is in Nashville, Campbell said her introduction to the Catholic faith is something she treasures.

“Protestant southerners don’t think the record is very Catholic,” she said. “But Catholics usually see it as Catholic.”

The listener is a huge variable that is outside the writer’s control. Campbell said this is why she doesn’t do much explaining in her music.

“I’m not on a mission,” she said. “I want the listeners to bring their own experience to the music.”

Not a Black and White World

“One night I read the book Salvation on Sand Mountain all the way through,” Campbell said. “I got up the next morning and wrote the song ‘Signs Following.'”

The song describes the dilemma of those wishing to prove faith and fearing the means of proving it, which in this context is by handling snakes.

“I am not putting down people who believe in snake handling,” Campbell said. “This is a story about a specific incident, about a very one-on-one issue of how you are going to live your life.”

Campbell said the book—and her song—should conjure up images of the extremity of beliefs.

“Where’s the fine line between the positive and the negative?” Campbell asked. “We don’t live in a black and white world. These are things we ask ourselves: ‘What do you keep? What do you throw away?'”

“Talking about truth is always going to matter,” she said. “Sometimes you have to let it go. Faith will go where it needs to go.”

The Stranger

Campbell’s latest album, Wandering Strange, is a compilation of some of her favorite hymns and old songs.

“I made a list of childhood songs that I like to sing,” she said and that became the album.

The title hearkens back to the idea of Christians being “strangers in this world.”

As an artist, Campbell said she not only feels like a stranger, but she often feels like she is wandering as well.

“Jesus always welcomed the stranger,” Campbell said. “He was all encompassing.”

Wandering Strange has been a popular album with Campbell’s secular record label and at the secular stores where her music is distributed.

People aren’t afraid of religious music, she said. Just because she hasn’t been overtly singing gospel songs in the past doesn’t mean people won’t be open to hearing them now. In fact, Campbell said the most requested song from the album is “10,000 Lures,” which she said is the most adamantly Protestant song she wrote.

Courageous Artist

“Artists need to have courage,” Campbell said. “People respond to an artist who is true to herself.”

Campbell has found her balance writing in a secular market because she always remains true. “To yourself be true,” she sings in the chorus of “Bascom’s Blues” on her Moonpie Dreams Album.

“You can’t be free as an artist if you are scared about Christians buying records,” she said. “You would never be able to write a story or paint a picture. For me it can’t be for some political or social agenda. I just write what I know.”

Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.

Visit www.KateCampbell.com to listen to some of her music, order CDs and learn more about where you can find her performing near you.