Coronas are hand-rolled in Havana, Cuba, flavored with bittersweet life, death and impeccable craftsmanship. "Como estas? My name is Rosa," begins Kate Campbell's finest song, "Rosa's Coronas." The brilliance lies in the metaphor: Rosa's endurance, devotion, and deep sense of lineage seep into every puro. "I wonder as I roll," Campbell sings, "where will each one go? Will they land in the hands of kings and presidents?" Like her mother before her, Rosa rolls cigars for which men will kill. But her own daughter has fled Cuba, choosing the land that Rosa sees as a place of violence and betrayal, not a new world of freedom. It's 1998, and John Paul II is coming to Havana; her fabrica has been told not to attend the parade, but Rosa knows "the quota won't be made that day." The song is about a habañera and her work; it's also about the intersection of politics and spirituality. Campbell passes no judgment on Castro, on those who would die to flee Cuba or on those, like herself, who would die to stay. Like the leaves of the Coronas that Rosa forms with expert hands, history and personality interweave and spiral, on and on, and ultimately there's no way to dissect their fragrant mystery. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but not in Campbell's songs.
Campbell grew up in Sledge, Miss., at the height of the busing conflict. Her song "Bus 109" tells that story straight and without sanctimony, just as her songs "Moonpie Dreams," "Lanterns on the Levee" and "See Rock City," investigate and question Southern myths. On her best album, 1999's Rosaryville (Compass), Campbell transcends local color and miniaturism. Even the clichéd images of mansions and kudzu find spiritual life. But like Rosa's dedication to her island, Campbell's Southern pride is not without problems. On "Look Away," she recalls the burning of an antebellum mansion and praises the dignity of Southern history. The South's surrender is long and slow, Campbell explains, but one can't help but think how that's easy for her to say -- her bloodline never crossed the Middle Passage or stood on the auction block -- just as it's too easy for a Yankee music critic to doubt whether that mansion could have stood for more than hate. The hatred of slavery built it, after all.
But we digress: You should see and hear Campbell this Thursday, not because she'll reveal some deep Southern truth to you (she might) and not because Guy Clark and Emmylou Harris have praised her to the skies. See her because she's a singer of uncommon sweetness; a gifted, risk-taking musician; and an uncompromising, enduring craftswoman.