There is a scene in the new documentary, “It Was The Music,” that says plenty about multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, a veteran of playing with Bob Dylan, Phil Lesh, Jackson Browne and Levon Helm.
Campbell is meeting with young musicians who, like him, play the violin. And while he brandishes a mandolin, Campbell leads something of a workshop with these hopeful music makers, walking them through sonic interplay on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star;” sharing a story of recording with the New York Philharmonic as a studio musician; and above all approaching his young charges as though they were musical colleagues rather than students or new acquaintances.
In true Campbell style, this musician who has graced the stages of Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall focuses on the passion for music he shares with the young musicians. And he delivers his message with an empowering familiarity that puts everyone in the room at ease.
“I’m not a legit violinist, you know,” Campbell tells the group. “I just play country fiddle most of the time.”
This scene is one of many in “It Was The Music” to offer a sweeping look at multiple genres of music, a range of performers and the mechanics of turning talent and drive into a career marked by achievement after achievement.
“It Was The Music” by filmmaker Mark Moskowitz focuses on Campbell and his wife, musician Teresa Williams, who together have scaled the heights of the music industry, nurtured a loyal following of fans and carved out a singular identity with their own band while performing with some of the biggest names in the business.
But there is also plenty from other folks, with whom you may be familiar. During interviews and performances, Browne, Lesh, Bob Weir, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady of Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane fame, Rosanne Cash, Bill Payne of Little Feat and Emmylou Harris help Moskowitz tell a story that at once finds Larry and Teresa at the center of things, but also transcends this power couple. The range of voices expands the discussion of music, beyond the Americana genre that Larry and Teresa propel on a daily basis, beyond the blues, beyond soul, beyond rock, beyond any one discipline, label or legacy.
Williams, whose cinematography with a hand-held camera adds volumes to this story, offers her own take on the series. She said the documentary, “is about music and people who love music, and why do we love music, and why is it such a healer, why is it so potent and powerful and a healer?…Music is primal, let’s face it.”
This 10-part series available on Amazon and fans.live offers a lot to unpack. For starters, Larry and Teresa are the stars of this show. But their relationship is what truly takes center stage in this series. The dynamic that binds them together, their dedication to their craft and each other, colored by playful on-stage banter and off-stage determination — it all illustrates how neither musician forgets that they are in this game to have fun.
“They’re kind of like me and my wife,” Lesh says in the series. “We’re a team, you know. I respect and honor that so much.”
Moskowitz goes the extra mile in his production with effortless on-screen appearances that offer a perpendicular perspective to the all-encompassing story arc that revolves around Larry and Teresa but reveals so much more.
“What I think Mark really accomplished with this thing was that there’s a bottom line of honesty running through this whole thing and we all let that happen,” Larry said. “He searched it out. He started with that base and Teresa and I and everyone else involved with this just let it happen. If it was that it wouldn’t be anything.”
A press release described the production this way: “‘It Was The Music’ is both a musical odyssey and deeply personal love story about two musicians who, in search of what they call ‘music utopia,’ step off the tour bus and into the limelight to make it on their own.”
The documentary, according to the press release, “follows Campbell and Williams over 15 months on the road, from its starting point on a Friday afternoon on Williams’ seventh generation farm in Peckerwood Point, Tennessee, to Campbell’s native New York City and the couple’s home in Woodstock, New York, to recording studios, clubs, and theatres across the country. Highlights throughout include exclusive live performances from intimate venues and jam-packed music festivals, culminating in its grand finale with selections from the star-studded ‘The Last Waltz 40th Anniversary Celebration’ presented by Lincoln Center at New York City’s Damrosch Park.”
The origins of “It Was The Music” can be traced to a show that Larry and Teresa played some time ago at the Ardmore Music Hall in Pennsylvania. That’s where Moskowitz, a member of the audience with his partner Colleen, saw the couple perform. He was so moved that he approached Larry and Teresa after the gig, chatted them up as they signed autographs, and told them he’d like to make a documentary about them.
“He seemed very sincere and very moved,” Campbell said. “He presented what he wanted to do, insightfully as he could present it, and we just kind of thought, ‘O.K., great, nice to meet you, glad you had a good time. See you later.’ But then he followed through.”
Moskowitz wrote and directed the 2002 documentary, “Stone Reader.”
“A critically acclaimed book vanished,” reads a description of the story on imdb.com. “Its author forgotten. One reader determined to find out why.”
A review on rogerebert.com says “Stone Reader” is “about a reader who goes in search of other readers, and it is a love poem to reading. It is the kind of movie that makes you want to leave the theater and go directly to a book store.”
Along with his documentary work, Moskowitz has directed thousands of advertisements for Democratic political candidates, from the local to national levels, in 49 states. And it’s safe to say that Larry and Teresa knocked his socks off when he saw them play that show at the Ardmore.
He in turn, with his crew and attention to his craft, worked hard to establish a bond with the couple. And Teresa realized that she had years earlier been so taken with a New York Times article about “Stone Reader” that she clipped it and has kept it ever since.
“We liked him,” she said. “And he seemed as passionate as us.”
“It Was The Music” offers a lot of background on Larry and Teresa. But that is framed by contrast as Moskowitz dives deep into Larry’s roots in New York City and Teresa’s background in Tennessee. The manner in which apartment building rooftops shaped Larry is profound. And the front porch musical performances in Tennessee, featuring Larry, Teresa and Teresa’s parents, complemented by the strong bond she shares with her family, resonate loudly now that we have all been in some phase of a pandemic lockdown for nearly a year.
This series also tips its hat to Larry and Teresa’s Hudson Valley home of Ulster County, New York.
There are scenes filmed inside and outside of Levon Helm Studios, where Larry and Teresa performed for years with the former Band drummer during his Midnight Ramble house concerts. Inside the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, Mark McKenna, who served as studio engineer and manager at the old Bearsville Studios, and who manages Larry and Teresa, sits down with Ian Kimmet, former A&R Director at Bearsville Records, and musician Happy Traum, Larry and Teresa’s longtime friend, for a group discussion. The walking path at the nearby Ashokan Reservoir is included, as are the Colony Woodstock music venue and The Clubhouse recording studio in Rhinebeck, across the Hudson River from Woodstock.
Larry and Mark Moskowitz pay a visit to Rocket Number Nine Records in nearby Kingston for a discussion on rock music. And Larry and Teresa spend time in the Dutchess County home and recording studio of drummer and sound engineer Justin Guip, in Milan, near Rhinebeck
Justin, who operates Milan Hill Studios, is joined by his family in multiple scenes. And it all underscores the strong and enduring relationship between Larry and Justin, who partnered with Levon on three Grammy-winning records, “Dirt Farmer,” “Electric Dirt and “Ramble At The Ryman.” Justin plays drums for Larry and Teresa and he and Larry work extensively on recording projects at Milan Hill Studios.
Overall, one of the more riveting scenes in the series features Larry taking a walk down memory lane, to when he became intrigued with the Rolling Stones song, “The Last Time.” He proceeds to play the song on a record, on a turntable, and dissect its signature riff on guitar.
Another point well worth mentioning is that Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton nearly steals the show as he takes this entire production full-steam ahead with his personality, performance and presence. Paxton’s impact on the series and its wide-ranging discussion of music is seismic.
But it’s Moskowitz who sums it all up nicely as the documentary begins. He’s sitting at a typewriter, writing a letter, and giving life to his words through a voiceover.
“Last night Colleen and I stopped into a little place near her house, the Ardmore Music Hall,” he explained as he typed his letter. “It was jammed. A couple about our age was playing. And I looked at Coleen and she had tears in her eyes. The music they played meant so much to her dad and her brother, both long gone, and last night it took her and me back to different places in different ways. Some guy, like always these days, uploaded the whole thing to YouTube, but it’s nothing like being there live. It never is.
“Ever since ‘Stone Reader,’ you and I have gone around and around about what certain books meant to us growing up. But it wasn’t until I went to see Larry and Teresa last night that I realized, it wasn’t the books after all. It was the music.”