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“To me, the South is a combination of blues and gospel and country music. I think that’s what the South has given the world, and it’s that combination that you hear in a lot of my music,” says Kate Campbell, Decatur’s opening performer for the Year of Alabama Arts. Her concert is Thursday at Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts.
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“To me, the South is a combination of blues and gospel and country music. I think that’s what the South has given the world, and it’s that combination that you hear in a lot of my music,” says Kate Campbell, Decatur’s opening performer for the Year of Alabama Arts. Her concert is Thursday at Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts.

Keeping it real
Campbell’s music weaves tapestry of her life experiences

By Patrice Stewart
pstewart@decaturdaily.com· 340-2446

Kate Campbell’s life experiences are woven into every song she writes and every tune she sings.

She spent her childhood in the Mississippi Delta town of Sledge as the daughter of a Baptist preacher.

Her high-school years were more urban: Nashville and Orlando. Then she came to Alabama for college, earning a bachelor’s in history from Samford University in Birmingham, then a master’s degree in Southern history from Auburn University with Wayne Flynt as her major professor.

It’s not surprising that singer Campbell’s sound is as varied as her background.

You can hear that rich mixture Thursday at 7 at the Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts when Campbell is Decatur’s opening performer for the Year of Alabama Arts. Also, on Tuesday afternoon, she will lead a free professional development workshop for teachers, joined by Flynt, and a songwriting session for Decatur City Schools’ International Baccalaureate program and choral students.

Not every student gets her professor to join her on the road. But Flynt, a well-known Alabama historian, author, minister and activist, and Campbell are collaborating on a January series at Samford University. He will talk about race, religion and a sense of place, and she will sing songs she has written on those themes.

“He has kind of been my mentor,” Campbell said of Flynt, a retired Auburn professor who loves music as well as history. “When I started putting together my love of Southern history with my songwriting and music, people started paying attention, and everything made sense to me. I found my own voice, and he was a part of that.”

Campbell, 45, said in a telephone interview that she was considered a “late bloomer” in the music world.

“I’ve been writing songs since I was a little girl, but I got married, worked on a Ph.D. for a while, did some college teaching, and then things started coming together for recordings.” Campbell, who is married to a chaplain and lives in Nashville between singing engagements, said audiences responded well, so for the past 10 years she has focused on recording and performing, as well as writing.

When she was younger, Campbell said she was inspired by Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. They don’t do the same type of music, “but they are terrific models for women.”

Southern writers — especially Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor — also provided a lot of her inspiration, and Flynt will read some passages between her music during their sessions.

But Campbell’s Mississippi Delta childhood also plays a big part in her music.

“To me, the South is a combination of blues and gospel and country music. It all comes from the South — I think that’s what the South has given the world — and it’s that combination that you hear in a lot of my music,” she said.

There’s some Southern rock, rhythm and blues and soul mixed in, along with a bit of Elvis, another of her loves, but when you look for her CDs in a music store, better check the “folk music” category.

As a child in the 1960s in the Delta, she had to reconcile “a lot of images I didn’t understand. I think history has given me a way to talk about that,” she said, and her music includes civil rights history and songs about the South.

“I think it’s a continuing dialog, and now everything is global,” Campbell said. “As things change, the South is in a unique position to dialogue about this, and I think we should be.”

She finds it interesting that the largest market for her music is the Northeast, not the South. “I think it’s because I’m a white Southerner, and they haven’t heard many white folks from the South who are willing to talk about these things.” One of her performances was at the Southern Poverty Law Center and Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery.

She describes her work as “eclectic,” while storytelling is her style. Campbell’s CDs since 1995 include “Songs from the Levee,” “Moonpie Dreams,” “Visions of Plenty,” “Rosaryville,” “Wandering Strange,” “Monuments” and “Blues and Lamentations.”

Her most recent CD, “For the Living of These Days,” reflects her spiritual nature and was recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals as Lent began. Spooner Oldham of Rogersville is the other musician on the CD, which features new songs written by Campbell, Oldham, Mark Narmore and Walt Aldridge, plus “Jesus Christ” written by Woody Guthrie and Kris Kristofferson’s “They Killed Him.” It includes “If I Ever Get to Heaven,” a few hymns, a new Civil Rights Memorial song, and a prayer that she set to music: “Prayer of Thomas Merton.”

When writing songs, she reflects on Jesus’ words about how people should treat one another. When choosing songs for her latest album, she returned to her favorite sources: the record collection of her parents, the Rev. Jim and Jeanette Henry, now retired and living in Orlando; the Baptist hymnal; classic folk, soul and country music; and Alabama songwriters.

Oldham, who is legendary for his work on many classic rhythm and blues songs, will join her for the Decatur concert, as will Narmore. Oldham wrote hits for stars as diverse as Percy Sledge and Barbra Streisand; he played organ on Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” and Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You” and has played on nearly all of Campbell’s albums.

Campbell usually plays guitar and piano onstage. “We’ll mix it up at this concert,” said Campbell, who last performed for a Junior League event in Decatur and has more recently played Huntsville.

“I love Southern rock and the music that came out of Muscle Shoals,” said Campbell. “And I love Elvis Presley — I have many tunes that mention him, and I may do a couple in Decatur.” She plans to sing some from her latest album, along with “Crazy in Alabama” and others in honor of her “second home.”

“I think it’s interesting that she’s as comfortable singing in a church or coffeehouse as in a theater or concert venue,” said Lindy Ashwander, executive director for the Princess. Some of Campbell’s winter concert settings include Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham and churches in Massachusetts, Kentucky, Connecticut, California and Virginia, as well as a performance for the Alabama Historical Association, a library concert series in Hyde Park, N.Y., and an acoustic series in New England.

“She plans to do some of her Alabama tunes here when she and her guest, Spooner Oldham, help kick off our year of emphasis on the arts, especially those with Alabama ties,” said Ashwander. “She appeals to a lot of different music lovers with her style forged in soul, rhythm and blues, Southern rock, country and folk music plus gospel with some Baptist standards, and she’s been described as a country folk singer influenced by Bob Dylan, with a twist of Al Green.”

Former Decatur resident Lee Sentell, state tourism director, planned the Year of Alabama Arts (following years emphasizing the outdoors, food, and gardens, and has been invited to Campbell’s performance, said Ashwander. More than 600 events, from craft fairs, festivals and art strolls to plays and concerts, already are planned around the state for this joint venture between the tourism department and the Alabama State Council on the Arts. To get copies of the Alabama Calendar of Events, Must-See Arts Destinations and 2007 Alabama Vacation Guide, call (800) Alabama or visit www.800alabama.com.

Ashwander said Campbell’s artist-in-residence events in Decatur are sponsored by Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel, with grants from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.

If you go

What: “An Evening with Kate Campbell and Special Guest Spooner Oldham” to kick off the Year of Alabama Arts in Decatur

When: Thursday, 7 p.m.

Where: Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts

Tickets: $20 and $22, adults, $15 students and teachers. Call 340-1778.

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