American dreams (and Jesus-shaped tomatoes)

Several years ago, after a performance in Asheville, Kate Campbell and her husband, Ira, were driving just north of the city when Kate saw a sign: “Jesus and tomatoes coming soon.”

“It was in front of a grocery store, on a neon sign,” the Mississippi-born singer/songwriter (who’s now based in Nashville) remembers. “I wrote it down immediately. I had no idea when or how I was going to use it in a song, but last summer in Nashville, they had this whole [story about] a cinnamon bun that came out looking like Mother Teresa, and it hit me how we misuse the gospel to mix things up in our society.”

That, plus the neon sign spawned the song “Jesus and Tomatoes” on Campbell’s latest CD, Visions of Plenty (Compass Records, 1998) — a disc that features such luminaries as Emmylou Harris and Spooner Oldham doing backup. In “Jesus and Tomatoes,” a Tennessee Bradley tomato seed sprouts into a likeness of Jesus. Of course, crowds willingly pay to witness this Miracle-Gro-enhanced phenomenon, until “a lawyer from the Lord” closes down the operation.

As humorous as the story is, the song’s most telling aspect involves Campbell’s ability to spot meaning in the seemingly mundane. She tends to paint her characters in sepia tones — bound to the earth, and destined to stay that way — but she always finds the momentous aspects of their lives. “I’m very interested, and I always have been, in everyday people’s lives,” she explains, “how some people do the same job over and over their whole lives. Or how people have this one little dream — [like] the bowling guy.”

That would be the wiry Joe Lane, introduced in “Bowl-A-Rama,” who spends his time smoking Lucky Strikes (one of the more obvious of the song’s many puns) and hanging out in bowling alleys. A fried-food diet prompts the heart attack that stops Joe from ever attaining his lifelong dream: to move his high game of 299 to the perfect 300.

“I’m fascinated by individuals who have these dreams,” Campbell continues. “In the big context, this is where [the idea behind] Visions of Plenty comes in. We have a land of plenty that has supposedly been blessed by God, but we have immense poverty still, [because of] misuses of our economic system, and that’s what interests me, and what I continue to explore in different ways.”

Consider the title cut from Visions of Plenty, whose chorus emphasizes the female narrator’s own dessicated vision: “Visions of plenty roll across my mind/Still my hands are empty, and the system’s going dry/I keep thinking ’bout my children, what’s left down here for them.” That woman’s story rings true for Campbell, too.

And that woman’s South is Campbell’s South, as well. The former history teacher sees the often-mythologized region both from a historical perspective and in terms of its current reality. Sometimes, though, the past and the present merge into a picture, which Campbell files away for future use.

With typically rich detail, Campbell explains the “picture” that triggered the title song from Visions: “The first time Ira and I went driving back to Mississippi [from Nashville], the cotton was in full bloom. All of a sudden, I saw this string of five or so casino signs, right in the middle of the cotton field. It struck me as quite ironic. When cotton was King Cotton, less than 5 percent of the population owned the land and made money off the cotton, especially in Mississippi. Everybody else just worked the land and never received their fair share. Each year, it was the hope that, ‘Well, this year I’m going to make enough so that I can buy a part of the land.’ It struck me as interesting that still — and it’s not a judgment on people who gamble, or even the casinos — you work and you work and you work, but you never even know the people who are still making the bulk of the money. It’s about that elusive American Dream which, when I saw the casino signs in the cotton field, all made sense to me.”

Over the course of three critically acclaimed recordings — Songs From the Levee (Compass Records, 1995), Moonpie Dreams (Compass Records, 1996) and now Visions — Campbell’s impossibly crystalline voice and lovingly constructed blend of country and folk have incited everyone from music critics to other musicians to sit up and take notice. She was featured last year in the prestigious Oxford American literary journal’s issue on Southern music. And a new book — Solo: Women Singer/Songwriters In Their Own Words — features Campbell among the 19 profiled artists (who include such notables as Ani DiFranco, Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega).

The legendary Emmylou Harris jumped at the chance to sing backup on two songs from Visions of Plenty. Says Campbell: “I have two musical women who have always inspired me. One is her, the other is Dolly Parton. I never thought I’d meet either of them, much less that Emmylou would sing on a record of mine. That was incredible!”

Campell’s innately Southern stories and her visceral-yet-lyrical — and highly literate — songwriting style have earned comparisons to such Southern literary icons as Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams.

But sometimes, Campbell makes a striking departure from her signature narrative style. On Visions‘ “Deep Tang,” she works a series of 16 two-word images (no verbs) around a brief chorus, forging a powerful image of how industrialization has altered the city of Birmingham’s sky (and skyline). Asked if she thought this poetic turn was risky, she says, “I wasn’t sure about it, and I went into a recording studio and just made a demo of it, with me on guitar. The woman who was the engineer at the studio that day said, ‘You know what? I’m from Pittsburgh, and I just think that’s a great song.’ I knew then, when she got it, it would work.”

And that’s precisely one of the secrets of Kate Campbell’s success: She may write Southern, but she tells universal truths. After all, doesn’t everyone — like Joe Lane — want to bowl a 300 game?

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