On January 2 husband and wife Americana duo Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams walked onto centre court at Madison Square Garden and performed, in all its star-spangled glory, the American national anthem.
They were there at the invitation of the New York Knicks, whose game against the San Antonio Spurs had drawn almost 20,000 fans. They returned at half time, for a rollicking reading of Johnny Cash’s ‘Big River’. From court-side to the cheap seats, the crowd couldn’t get enough.
Strapping on a guitar and approaching the mic in front of thousands of baying basketball diehards would induce near-panic in many artists. For Campbell and Williams there was a sense of coming home.
Both had played the venue many times previously, as members of Band leader Levon Helm’s touring ensemble and, in the case of Campbell, with Bob Dylan, with whom he more or less lived on the road as part of Dylan’s Neverending Tour from 1997 to 2004.
When you’ve shared a stage with Dylan, opening for the New York Knicks is child’s play.
“Playing with Dylan was absolutely a dream come through,” says the laconic guitarist and singer. ‘The three names I grew up worshiping as a kid were Dylan, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But I did that for eight years and then it was time to move on, to working with Levin Helm.”
He had by that point truly earned his spurs. Alongside Dylan, he has trod the boards with Sheryl Crow, Rosanne Cash, Paul Simon Willie Nelson and BB King.
“It was always great to strike up a connection with those artists,” he says. “As with Dylan, it was something you’d dreamed about. And then you were doing it.”
After a new year baptism at Madison Square Garden, Campbell and Williams will soon be in Ireland, touring their cathartic second album Contraband Love. It’s a gorgeous but often challenging serving of oak-aged alternative country.
Among the subjects up for rumination is Campbell’s near fatal dalliance with heroin as a high-schooler in Manhattan.
“We’ve been through a lot and observed a lot too,” he says. ‘I’ve had my issues — which I worked through. I was fortunately to come out the other end.”
Though married for 30 years, Campbell and Williams are in many ways complete opposites. Where he grew up in New York, Williams was raised in Tennessee and is a child of the South.
As their Facebook page declares, their partnership “draws a map of how two people from disparate cultures can find common ground”.
“We couldn’t be more completely different,” says Williams. “His background was going to see all these famous artists passing through New York. People were sneaking him into gigs from the age of 12. I was literally picking cotton it the fields while he was doing that. They were different worlds.”
Though they’ve been a couple for decades the first time they worked together in earnest was playing with Levon Helm, with whom Campbell also served as musical director.
As one of the guiding voices behind The Band, Helm was a founding figure of the modern Americana scene — and an enduring influence on Campbell and Williams, who performed with him until his death in 2012.
“As an actor and a musician he spoke to me very powerfully,” says Williams.
“When I learned that the same person who I saw in Coal Miner’s Daughter sang ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ — it just blew my mind.
"He was my favourite artist period. I never dreamt I would meet him — much less work with him. It was a beautiful thing. He encouraged you to develop your creativity and he always put all of our voices into his performances. We learned a lot.”