A long happy marriage and a thriving music-making career are blessings, with varying degrees of compatibility. Combining them when you’re both approaching your 60s is a life change and a leap of faith. This could be a potent pitch for a scripted film, but instead it’s the real story playing out in the new docu-series It Was The Music featuring Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, now available as a pay-per-view on Amazon.
Here’s what happened. Mark Moskowitz, a filmmaker with background in political advertising and director of the award-winning documentary Stone Reader, caught a show by Cambell and Williams one night in Pennsylvania and found himself so caught up in their sound and story that he coaxed them into being followed by cameras for months.
If his pitch to and trust-building with the couple is covered in the series, I haven’t seen it in the first three episodes, but Moskowitz clearly earned close-up access and a lot of trust. Not only do we get a rich and affectionate portrait of two brilliant musicians who’ve conjured up one of the most compelling duo/group acts in recent roots music, we travel along with them on the indie performing circuit. It’s gritty and hard existence for anyone of any age, made rewarding by the joy of performance, which is abundant and palpable.
Campbell and Williams didn’t have to do hit the road like this, Moskowitz observes. Campbell’s an Americana Lifetime Achievement Award winner as an instrumentalist whose resume includes years with Bob Dylan and musical and producing relationships at the highest levels of roots. His last regular stint as a sideman was as music director for Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble shows at the famous barn studio and venue in Woodstock, NY. There he worked closely with his wife Teresa, a stunning singer in both country and theater settings. The two had talked about going out as a duo for many years, but in the middle 2010s they made it official, recording a dazzling self-titled debut for Red House, followed by the deeper and darker Contraband Love in 2017.
The documentary captures their lives in between those releases over ten episodes of varying length, not to mention dozens of live performances and closeup looks at the songwriting and producing process. There is an inspiring backstory about the couple meeting in the gigging world of New York City’s small but vibrant country music scene of the 1980s. Many colleagues from those days became lifelong friends, so we get commentary from Buddy Miller, Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal, Shawn Colvin, David Bromberg, Jorma Kaukonen, Phil Lesh and Jackson Browne. The family-like network powering the Americana scene is rendered as well as any video work I’ve seen, and that’s a valuable contribution because it gets at the ethos of roots music, where love and story and sound is held in higher esteem than money or fame.
“I didn’t know a thing about Larry Campbell or Teresa Williams when I saw them that first time,” says Moskowitz in one of his occasional narration voice-overs. “Least of all this was their first record together, first tour together, their first moment with something of their own together. To think that Larry and Teresa stepped off the tour bus, packed their guitars, two amps and their 30 year marriage into their SUV at this point in their lives, that’s a high wire act.”
In other words, it’s the stuff of compelling drama, with a flawless soundtrack.