Sarah Elizabeth Campbell passes

Singer-songwriter Sarah Elizabeth Campbell passed away on Thursday, December 26, 2013, in Austin, Texas, after a battle against liver cancer. As a child she was exposed to a rare form of Hepatitis C. She was 60 years old.

Born on May 13, 1953, in Austin, Texas, Sarah Elizabeth Campbell was one of three children two of whom took after their parents in having an interest in music. 

She sang first in church before at the age of 11 or 12 she began to sing for a wider public. 

In her early 20s Ms Campbell moved to Columbia, northern California. Her earliest California band was called Deep Water. 

For 12 years she was a member of the folk and bluegrass band Fiddlesticks, the premier acoustic band in Tuolumne County, California. They were the official host band of the Strawberry Bluegrass Festival during that event’s first decade. After leaving Fiddlesticks she became a regular on the folk festival circuit performing at the Strawberry Musical Festival in northern California, the Kerrville Music Festival in Texas and folk music venues across the country. 

She performed as a duet with Nina Gerber.

Sarah Elizabeth CampbellPrior to moving to California, Ms Campbell lived in Boston, Massachusetts, where she wrote Geraldine and Ruthie Mae, based on two older homeless women that she saw living on the street. The song has been recorded twice by Laurie Lewis, appearing once on the eponymous Blue Rose album. It is also included on the Live album, by Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands.  

Her best-known song is Mexico, recorded by Marley’s Ghost. 

Another of her songs Heartache was recorded by Tom Rozum. 

Other songs penned by Ms Campbell have been recorded or performed by Jim Messina, John Prine, Levon Helm (of The Band) and Rick Danko. 

Before returning to Texas she was an active participant in early Santa Cruz Bluegrass Society concerts, annual meetings and other events. 

She was known for her quick wit and magnetic personality. 

Included on her debut album, A Little Tenderness, is a recording of Kathy Kallick’s Part of a Story.  Kallick and two other members of the Good Ol’ Persons, John Reischman and Sally Van Meter, assisted in the recording of the 10-track collection.  

That album, produced by Nina Gerber, served to place Ms Campbell in the national spotlight.  

I spoke to Ms Campbell’s great friend Laurie Lewis  ……. 

When did you first become aware of Sarah and what were the circumstances?

I think I first heard Sarah at a Strawberry Music Festival, back in the early 1980’s. Her band, Fiddlestix, was the “host band” of the festival, and as such they led jam sessions and partying at their cabin all night long. My band, the Grant Street String Band, was given the cabin right next door (actually part of the same cabin, divided by a wall). I had to ask Sarah and Fiddlestix to please keep it down at probably about 3:00 a.m. so we could get some sleep. That didn’t set me off on the right foot with her!

I have to say I was afraid of Sarah at first: she was so outspoken, boisterous, ribald, salty, and just plain big. You never knew what was going to come out of her mouth–a sly comment, an out-and-out joke, or some song that would tear your heart out and stomp on it.

Sarah’s voice was really something beautiful. So deep and rich and smoky. Lots of texture and fluidity. She really delivered on every song she sang. I mean, she wouldn’t sing anything that she didn’t believe in and she made the listener a believer along with her.

Is that when you first met or did you meet later …  what were the circumstances? 

I am a little foggy on when we first met and where, though I would have to guess it was Strawberry. We played together for a time, doing singer-songwriter round-robins with Carol McComb, and Nina Gerber accompanying us. 

You have recorded two of her songs, Geraldine and Ruthie Mae twice; what is it that you like about Sarah’s song writing and that song in particular? 

Actually, the only reason I re-recorded Geraldine and Ruthie Mae was so that I could donate a cut to a homeless shelter that was putting together a fundraiser CD. Sugar Hill owned the original cut. But I am quite glad I did, since the Right Hands sound so great on it, and I love the live cut (plus, it forced us to relearn the song and put it back in the repertoire). I particularly like that song because it addresses homelessness without pointing fingers or preaching, making it personal. Sarah was a master of the personal. We also recorded Sarah’s song, Heartache, on the Singin’ My Troubles Away CD, with Tom Rozum taking the lead. That song really suits Tom’s singing style, and it is beautifully crafted. 

Lately, I have been learning some more of Sarah’s songs, in anticipation of a memorial concert we’ll be doing in February in Santa Cruz. It was to have been a benefit for Sarah, but now we are just going to wallow in her music, and tell stories. For years, Sarah hosted a weekly gig, with special guests, that she called Bummer Night. There was many a sad song sung there accompanied by lots of laughter. 

Is there anything else that you would like to add? 

Sarah’s spirit and wide-open heart will be very much missed by a multitude of friends and fans. 


Selected discography:

  • A Little Tenderness, Kaleidoscope, 1990; re-released by DejaDisc in 1995.
  • Running With You, DejaDisc, 1994.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.