Kate Campbell – Monuments

Kate Campbell

Although it’s easy for most of us who live beyond the borders of the Mason-Dixon line to forget, there were many years in United States history where our nation consisted of two largely compatible yet fundamentally distinct cultures. As those differences seem, at least superficially, to erode and dissolve into a more homogenous American mix in the post-Civil Rights south, it becomes necessary for the arts to remind us that a different way of life (and some might say a resulting tension) exists in the land largely outside of the collective imaginations of those in the East, North, and West. Leaving the whole glowing body of work from Southern authors out, popular music has done well to highlight these differences, with Randy Newman to Vic Chesnutt to the Drive-By Truckers and Lynyrd Skynyrd trying to explain as insiders just what makes the fascinatingly unique society so puzzling, appealing, and paradoxical to those on the outside. And although she has been making a living doing just that for quite awhile now, Kate Campbell does it better than most anyone else on Monuments.
Like the best of those aforementioned like-minded songwriters, Campbell gives voice to the characters in her narration without passing judgment on them nor totally tipping her hand as to exactly what she wishes her listener to take from her portrayal. Now six albums into her career, she manages to both sidestep the braggadocio of the Confederate flag wavers and the self-hatred of the small-town outsiders. Using gospel music as a jumping-off point, Campbell has no lack of soul ingrained in the DNA of her arrangements, although she has employed variants of a fairly conventional Americana set-up (guitars, organs, violins, etc). Ultimately, it’s Campbell’s gift for reducing profundity to a few well-placed lines of verse that sets her apart from her bored, middle-aged singer/songwriter contemporaries – those for whom self-disclosure and bad poetry suffice for personal expression. At every stage of the game, Campbell makes a clear distinction between herself and their ilk.
Using the metaphor, both figurative and literal, of an invalid elderly woman who holes up in a mansion to push away the reality of a changing world, the sadly swaying “Petrified House” is one such example, portraying the crumbling façade of a once-ingrained value structure and singular stubbornness with which some view the winds of change. Like the tombstones that solemnly form the album artwork, the album seems to simultaneously be a tribute and moratorium on the South, freezing a moment for consideration. Her sound might be able to slip under Top 40 country’s radar, but her words are clearly too real for radio.
Where Chesnutt, and especially Newman, seems to tread a very fine line between adoration and revulsion of Southern culture, Campbell is similarly objective but uses about as much guarded sentimentality as the others employ acrimony and ennui. Not that she’s exactly an apologist for the southern way of life, either, with the only slightly veiled Martin Luther King references in the sing-songy “How Much Can One Heart Hold,” a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that manages to be neither maudlin nor over-romantic. No better distillation of that aesthetic exists than that found inside “New South,” a smart critique of the invasion of modernization and commercialism that attempt to replace the traditional culture, all set to a lazily bluesy Dixieland lilt. At once, with its images of Mercedes factories and Bichon Frises pushing grits and gravy off the dinner table and pulling down the kudzu vines. Of course, Campbell hasn’t loaded her album with only commentaries on Southern society.
Just as penetrating are the richly textured Americana of “Corn in a Box” and the surprisingly African-influenced “Strangeness of the Day,” both insights into the perspective of watching the modern world unfold with wonder and awe – both at what humans have been able to create and at what nature has put just beyond our reach. Such sentiments likely flow out of her faith, another staple of traditional southern life, which she testifies to in the perfectly syrupy piano ballad “The Way Home” (a track that would sound wonderful with Tom Waits spitting gravel over its sighing strings) and the simply strummed English folk ballad feel of “William’s Vision.”
In the end, Campbell has created the truly exceptional album that succeeds while being overtly sentimental, straightwardly penetrating, and shrewdly humble. It might be an album that both you and your mom could enjoy in equal measures, but most of the themes of loss and transition are fairly universal, and you don’t have to live anywhere near the South to effectively dig your figurative feet into common soil. More than anyone, except maybe million-dollar cowboy Alan Jackson, she can present the concerns and questions of an everyday adult, beyond the glamour of other post-30 artists who do everything they can to keep their foot in the door of their youth and relevance, decidedly at home with her station in life. She doesn’t have to try to convince you that she has prophetic insights nor sell you a manicured rebel persona in order to convince you that she has something significant to say. Like the best work of mature artists, Monuments exists as a document of its particular time period and captures its author as a single individual reacting to life. Like few others, Campbell can artfully speak with the voice of the common person without coming across as belabored or contrived but with genuineness and sincerity. These Monuments may or may not stand in tribute to a dead culture, but there is little doubt that life is the theme of this album.