Campbell, Sarah Elizabeth (Contemporary Musicians)
Folk singer, songwriter
Contemporary folk singer Sarah Elizabeth Campbell was described by Mary Chapin Carpenter in the liner notes for Running With You as someone who "writes songs from her heart." Carpenter also added, "She sings them that way too." Campbell is distinguished by her hauntingly poignant voice, touching lyrics, straightforward vocal style, and depth of feeling. Her second release in 1994, Running With You, was nominated for a Best Folk Album of the Year NAIRD Award for independent musicians, and Campbell remains one of the most popular local musicians in her home town of Austin, Texas. Her unvarnished vocal quality sets her apart from many other folk singers, along with the strength and passion discernible at the core of her music. Campbell's music reflects her life. In an interview with Contemporary Musicians she said, "The songs I write are about things going on in my life. They're not songs or situations that I just dream up. I view it as a cheap form of therapy."
Campbell was born in Austin, Texas, in 1963; her mother sang and played pianolthough not professionallynd her uncle was musically inclined as well. Campbell was one of three children. Her brother was also musical and became a guitarist for Delbert McClinton. Campbell recalls a childhood filled with music, but much of it was church music from the local Methodist church. She sang in church as a child and recalls "singing and eating a lot. " She liked all types of music throughout her childhood and young adulthood, but was especially fond of Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, Marcia Ball, Tracy Nelson, and Bonnie Raitt. She was also influenced by The Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Billie Holiday. Campbell began performing in public around the age of eleven or twelve and instinctively knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she was meant to be a singer. There was never any other career option for her. She made her debut as the Virgin Mary in a church play.
Campbell considers herself a "wild child" when reflecting upon her youth. When she was sixteen and still in high school, all of her friends were in their 20s and 30s. Campbell said, "I flunked everything but art and music in high school." She began to pursue a singing career in earnest around the age of sixteen. Marcia Ball was her idol at the time and she used to hang out at the Split Rail in Austin in order to see Frieda and the Firedogs. She said, "I was a part of that crazy Austin music scene back in the early 70s, not as a performer, but as a sixteen year old in awe. Then I started singing and writing songs and pursuing my music career with much more seriousness.... Music has always been my passion." Campbell had little trouble performing before a crowd, and after five years or so in Austin's limelight, she decided to move on.
When Campbell was in her early twenties she left Austin for Boston, where she lived briefly before moving to northern California. Once she was firmly ensconced in her new home, she joined a group in northern California called Fiddlesticks that specialized in bluegrass and folk. She said, "It was an old-timey bluegrass band. There were four people in the band, and I was the singer, guitarist, and sometimes a banjo player." Campbell stayed with the band for twelve years before striking out on her own, and although Fiddlesticks never released an album, they did garner an avid following in northern California. Campbell became a regular on the folk festival circuit after leaving Fiddlesticks, and performed at the Strawberry Musical Festival in northern California, the Kerriville Music Festival in Texas, and folk music venues across the country. She was also invited to perform at Switzerland's Frutigen Singer/Songwriter Festival, where she left an enduring impression. Campbell generally spends half of each year on the road, usually touring between April and September.
Campbell's debut album, A Little Tenderness, was released in 1990 on the small, independent, California based label Kaleidoscope. Kaleidoscope was noted primarily for the Kate Wolf catalog, and a woman in Wolf's band named Nina Gerber was Campbell's former guitar player. Gerber produced A Little Tenderness, and the album served to place Campbell in the national spotlight. Her first release was well-received, and she was content with Kaleidoscopeut the label folded after the owner's wife suffered a major stroke. In 1994, Campbell released her second album, Running With You, on the Austin-based DejaDisc label. DejaDisc also bought Campbell's first album in order to rerelease it. Campbell was one of the top four finalists forthe independent NAIRD music award for Running With You; it was in the running for the Best Folk Album of the Year NAIRD Award. In 1994, after DejaDisc moved its base to Nashville, Tennesee, Campbell left the label. She returned to her hometown of Austin and immediately reestablished herself as a premier local performer. She performed with her band and several guest artists each week at Austin's La Zona Rosa. She also hosted "Bummer Night" there, where one rule applied: sad songs only. As a result, the crowd moaned, cried, complained, and whined along with performers each week. Some of the guest artists at La Zona Rosa's "Bummer Night" have included Rosalie Sorrells, Peter Rowan, Tish Hinojosa, Odetta, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Young, Tom Russell, Kevin Welch, and Butch Hancock.
Campbell contributed tracks to two Austin music collections. She contributed two songs to DejaDisc's Pastures of Plenty: An Austin Celebration of Woody Gunthrie, which earned some of the highest praises for the album, and she contributed "Sad Situation" to Threadgill's Supper Session. Campbell recorded Running With You in Austin and used Bill Ginneonard Cohen's keyboard players one of her producers; the other producer was Marvin Dykhuis, guitarist with Tish Hinojosa. Half of the album's twelve songs were written by Campbell, and in addition to her own material she included songs by John Prine, Karla Bonoff, Greg Trooper, Tom Russell, and Pierce Pettis. Campbell also included the first song Peggy Lee had a hit with, "Waiting For The Train (To Come In)" as well as the Boudleaux Bryant classic "Love Hurts". John Hagen from Lyle Lovett's Large Band contributed cello, Betty Elders contributed backing vocals, Paul Sweeney was featured on mandolin, along with Paul Pearcy on drums, Dave Heath on bass, and guitarists Brian Wood and Rich Brotherton.
Campbell's greatest forte is songwriting; her original songs have been recorded or performed by Jim Messina, Rick Danko and Levon Helm (of The Band). Campbell generally mixes her own original compositions with those of her favorite writers, and tends to favor material that soothes heartaches and eases dark, melancholic yearnings. "I am drawn to sad songs," Campbell admits, "I think my voice is built for it. That torchy stuff is easy for me to sing."
A Little Tenderness, Kaleidoscope, 1990; rereleased by DejaDisc in 1995.
Running With You, DejaDisc, 1994.
"Sarah Elizabeth Campbell," (June 3, 1998)
"Sarah Elizabeth Campbell," (June 2, 1998)
A Contemporary Musicians interview with Sarah Elizabeth Campbell on August 18, 1998.
B. Kimberly Taylor