Even when style is the only factor considered, genres cannot function as discrete categories. They necessarily overlap. In the end, categories of either type turn out to be a matter of convenience, primarily for the task of marketing. Still we are accustomed to thinking in terms of categories, and they may even guide us, to some extent, in how to listen to a musical selection.
So, when handed an album by an artist like Kate Campbell, we may be a bit confused or even frustrated. What kind of music is this? How am I supposed to listen to it?
Save the Day is Campbell’s latest offering, and it provides a helpful clue for some listeners on the inside cover of the liner notes, with this quotation from Frederick Buechner: “It is no wonder that just the touch of another human being at a dark time can be enough to save the day.”
Those familiar with Buechner know that he is unique, that his writing resists categorization. He has written books like Wishful Thinking and Telling the Truth, which are overtly theological, he has retold stories in the biblical tradition in Son of Laughter and On the Road with the Archangel, and he has written novels like The Wizard’s Tide and Godric, the latter of which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Buechner’s writing appeals to some religious people and to people of no particular religious commitment.
Kate Campbell has a similar gift for telling stories and using language. This quotation may serve to suggest that we listen to Campbell like we read Buechner. Her words, stories and melodies will feed our souls, but not because they are trying to do so. They are only trying to be true to themselves.
The title song opens the collection by juxtaposing elaborate pleasures with simple ones. It comes closer to rock-and-roll than any other selection on the album and grabs the attention of the listener, alerting us to the significance of the word “day,” which appears at least once in ten of the twelve songs.
“Fordlandia” tells the fabulous story of Henry Ford’s attempt to build a town containing a rubber plantation in Brazil in the 1920s. The project, intended to provide rubber for the tires on Ford’s automobiles, was a dismal failure, and Campbell points to some of the reasons, particularly Ford’s complete ignorance of how to grow rubber trees.
This song has strong affinities with “Wheels within Wheels,” a song on Campbell’s 2004 album, Blues and Lamentations, which tells the story of a Texas preacher named Burrell Cannon who attempted to build a flying machine in 1902 based on the description of Ezekiel’s vision in the first chapter of the biblical book of Ezekiel.
While these two songs point out the folly of grandiose dreams, Campbell seems to have a genuine affection for those who have such dreams and the courage to try to make them happen. With Ford, of course, she has a foolish hero who also knew great success:
All of History’s greatest minds
Dared to lay it on the line
They came up short a couple of times
Before they made the model T
The album’s center of gravity resides in the sixth and seventh songs, “More than One More Day” and “Looking for Jesus.” The former looks seriously at the tenuous promise of love, accepting frail commitments for what they are:
I don’t know how long this love will be strong
But it’s more than one more day
“Looking for Jesus” begins with the silliness of digging for archaeological evidence for Jesus and trying to “re-trace his steps.” Campbell herself sings about such activities in the first half of the song, and, with perfect timing, the voice of John Prine appears in the middle of the song to tell of a man who found a flake in his cereal that looked like Jesus and “sold it to another soul on e-Bay.” I immediately recalled Prine’s classic line in “Illegal Smile”:
A bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down ”and won
The song closes with an image of a painting of Jesus the shepherd, with the paint portraying his hair worn off by the hands of supplicants. The absurdity of such objectifying efforts is redeemed three songs later in “Everybody Knows Elvis.” The elusiveness of the King of Kings and the King are woven together on top of organ music that brings the listener to a moment of church:
Everybody knows Jesus
Everybody knows Elvis
But you know nobody ever really does
We cannot quite find the hand of the one we most want to touch us. But while we wait for that day, “all the little things,” as described by the album’s final song, “Sorrowfree,” provide enough of that touch to save the day ”and Campbell’s music has provided, once again, a large collection of such little, saving things.
Mark McEntire is associate professor of religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.