Kate Campbell,
Save the Day
(Large River, 2008)

Kate Campbell, whose 12th album Save the Day happens to be, ought to be a name a whole lot more people know than do. A Nashville-based singer-songwriter whose voice and style are immediately recognizable if you're lucky enough to have encountered them before, she suffers little of the self-fascination of many in the tribe. If at heart a country-folk performer, she drops in elements of soul, gospel, rock and pop as appropriate. She writes some of the wittiest lyrics this side of John Prine, who also happens to a friend of hers and who joins his genial croak to Kate's sweeter, technically more accomplished voice on "Looking for Jesus" (co-composed with producer Walt Aldridge). Actually, come to think of it, Prine could have written it himself, and I mean that admiringly.

My own tastes being what they are, I am naturally most attracted to the more rural-sounding melodies, but the amiable pop-rock tune "Back to the Moon" (another Aldridge co-write) won me over on first hearing. That's because it speaks to my own conviction that we ought to do that; it beats dropping bombs on Third World countries, anyway. As always, however, the wittily literate Campbell means more than one thing, and her puckish sense of humor compels her to rhyme "moon" with, yes, "soon" and "June." If that doesn't make you laugh, maybe you left your own sense of humor in a drawer somewhere.

Something else I like about Campbell -- another quality she shares with Prine -- is her wry affection for the foibles of her fellow humans. The hummable folkish ballad "Fordlandia" recalls, at least at the surface level, a failed experiment Henry Ford conducted between the 1920s and 1945. Fordlandia was an invented Brazilian plantation community in which, so the theory went, the auto company's rubber needs would be met while workers and bosses lived in blissful harmony.

Campbell is kinder to the scheme than history is, tactfully refraining from noting the exploitation, racism, violence and corruption that plagued the enterprise, the sort of operation that gives arrogant imperialism and callous capitalism bad reputations. On the other hand, she's not wearing her Phil Ochs hat when she sings this. The song is really about the nobility of dreaming, even when the dreams don't come to the hoped-for fruition. Possibly, she takes as her inspiration the 19th-century Norwegian-American immigrant song "Oleana" -- concerning an absurdly impractical utopian colony conjured up by the revered but woolly-headed violinist Ole Bull -- only this time without the derision.

Another collapsed-community song, "Welcome to Ray," carries a simple but exquisite tune, plucked on co-writer Carl Jones' old-time banjo, as Campbell sings feelingly of a tiny town "bulldozed into clay" where "now the welcome sign / Is all that's left of Ray." It's as good as Iris DeMent's much better known "Our Town." Both it and "Fordlandia" keep playing in my head, where they're welcome to remain as long as they want. Failed towns, yes, but gloriously successful songs.

review by
Jerome Clark

11 October 2008

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