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Nashville Scene Close to the Land

Kate Campbell is a stranger in her own hometown

By Michael McCall

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  Kate Campbell becomes bemused, rather than angry, when she recalls the responses that her richly detailed, undeniably Southern songs received from Music Row record executives and music publishers. "They would all go, 'You know, you're not really country.' Or they'd say, 'These aren't really Nashville songs,' " the songwriter recalls with an impish smile. "I would just go, 'OK,' and go back home."

Home, then as now, was just a few blocks away from Music Row. There, Campbell would consider what transpired. She was told she wasn't "country," even though she filled her songs with prudently observed details of life in the rural South. Her work talked of desegregation from a child's point of view; she sang of crumbling mansion gates, of rusting L&N railroad steel, and of how buffalo no longer roam the hills of Tennessee. And she used these images to illustrate her thoughts about the transition of the Old South into the New South. Her songs were flush with the people, the landscapes, and the social issues of Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, where Campbell's characters swept churches, designed government-issue toilets, ate at Stuckey's and Shoney's, and preferred Elvis onscreen rather than onstage.

She was told that what she wrote wasn't "Nashville." However, after her birth in New Orleans and her early childhood in the tiny Delta town of Sledge, Miss., Campbell has spent much of her youth and most of her adult life in Nashville, the town she considers home. Her father, Rev. Jim Henry, was born in Nashville and was a longtime pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church. Her mother, who was born in nearby Cave City, Ky., can trace her family lineage in Southern Kentucky back through two centuries. Campbell can remember her father taking her to one of the final performances of the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium, just before it moved to Opryland in 1974. She visited Opryland USA the day the theme park opened. Yet, somehow, her songs weren't "Nashville" enough.

"I certainly saw the humor in it," says the soft-spoken Campbell as she sips green tea in her one-bedroom apartment in a historic brick building near St. Thomas Hospital, where her husband works as a chaplain. Surprisingly, her words don't carry a trace of bitterness. After releasing her fourth album, the exemplary Rosaryville, Campbell has reckoned with the fact that she's not what the music industry would label as "country" or "Nashville." Her songs may spring from both those words, and they may have gained a devout following throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. But they're hardly representative of what those two words have come to mean in the parlance of the music business.

"You have to make peace with that," she says. "You have to decide why you're doing what you're doing and then let it go."

Because Campbell has written songs and performed music since she was a child, and because she grew up in Nashville, people continually told her she should write hit songs for this singer or that singer. But it wasn't until after she was working as a history professor at Middle Tennessee State University that Campbell decided to change gears and pursue a musical career.

"I loved teaching, but when I turned 30, I came to the conclusion that teaching was something I could come back to, that it was something I can do when I'm older," she says. "But if I was going to sing my songs, I had to give it a go now."

Originally, she followed the Music Row path, visiting publishing companies, performing at open-mic nights, and trying to craft tunes that she thought would suit modern country singers. "I found that when I tried to write what I thought Music Row wanted, or when I wrote to fit a certain structure that people say you have to do, it didn't work," she says. "No one was paying attention to what I was writing when I did that. The only time people have responded to my writing is when I write the kind of songs I'm writing now. When I said that I'm going to write from my own experience and write the way it sounds right to me, that's when people started getting it."

It's this personal point of view that has led to such singularly conceived songs as Campbell's new "Look Away," an unforgettable song about a woman's struggle to come to terms with her love of the South. Written with Alabama native Walt Aldridge, "Look Away" begins with a memory of watching an ancient Southern mansion burn to the ground. The song then finds the woman fondly remembering her childhood, when she was taught by elders to love her neighbor and to love God. "Never saw a cross on fire/Never saw an angry mob," she sings. "I saw sweet magnolia blossoms/I chased lightning bugs at night/Never dreaming others saw our way of life in black and white."

As an adult, of course, Campbell now knows how others might view that mansion, and how they may see her heritage in terms of black and white. In the song's chorus, to a melancholy piano melody laden with feeling, she sings, "It's important to remember to fly the flag at half mast." Then, after a pause, she adds, "And look away."

It's an incredibly effective evocation of the conflicting stereotypes of the Old South, and one that Campbell makes even more poignant when she ends the song with her own point-of-view, singing in an emotion-drenched soprano, "Part of me hears voices crying/Part of me can feel their weight/And part of me believes that mansion stood for something more than hate."

It's this desire to deal with such personal issues that makes it easier for Campbell to accept the fact that her songs aren't embraced by the music industry in the town she calls home. "A lot of the songs in Rosaryville have to do with devotion," she says. "And, for me personally, I spend a lot of time thinking about the value in artistic devotion, about those people who do what they do--whatever it is--because of an inner drive rather than for some other kind of reward. That's what keeps me writing; it's what keeps me going down this path.... There may be people here who will say that I will never have a hit, that I'll never have a cut on someone's record, that I'll never be this or that. But if you know what your artistic center is, nobody can touch you."

As she says, she's at peace with her role as a songwriter and as a music-making resident of Music City USA. And, as she says, she sees the humor in the irony of her situation.

"There was this young song plugger I played some of my songs for one time a while back," she recalls. "After one of the songs, he said, 'I don't really feel like a woman would sing that song.' I just smiled and said, 'Well, I'm a 32-year-old woman, and I sing it all the time.' And he just looked at me like he didn't get it. And that's OK. 'Cause I know there are people out there who do get it, and that's all that matters."

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