Levon Helm is cool; his voice is a public resource and a treasure. I wish I could have heard him perform, as I liked his recent album a lot.
What remains of that world-weary drawl is a bit frayed around the edges, but it remains a potent instrument, as evidenced by last year’s “Dirt Farmer” (Vanguard), Helm’s first solo album in 25 years. It contains rural blues and mountain-soul laments that he learned from his parents while growing up on a cotton farm in Helena, Ark., as well as more recent contributions from Buddy and Julie Miller and Steve Earle. It’s done up in low-key rustic colors that evoke Helm and the Band in their “Basement Tapes” glory with Bob Dylan. This is the sound of friends gathered in a room to make music of intense conviction at a relaxed pace, and it feels as comfortable as a well-worn flannel shirt, as heart-breaking as a death-bed kiss, as vibrant as a Saturday-night, moonshine-fueled hootenanny.
The cast of co-conspirators includes Larry Campbell, who has served ably as Dylan’s touring guitarist and now plays the role of Helm’s producer, guitarist and fiddle-player. Campbell’s wife, Teresa Williams, contributes sublime harmony vocals, alongside Helm’s daughter, Amy. But at the center of it all is Helm, who plays drums, mandolin and sings with gusto. He brings a wounded yowl to the Stanley Brothers’ “False Hearted Blues Lover,” a lonesome pathos to Earle’s “The Mountain.” These songs are reminders of a rural way of life that is fast fading, as are singers who actually lived through these experiences.
Helm is 68 and has been paying off his medical debts by playing regularly in his adopted hometown of Woodstock, in upstate New York (Helm doesn’t collect songwriting royalties on Band songs, because Robbie Robertson laid publishing claim to most of the band’s material, so he’s largely dependent on live performances for income). His Midnight Rambles in Woodstock, modeled after the traveling minstrel shows of his youth, have attracted the likes of Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John and Donald Fagen.
Robbie Robertson screwed his bandmates out of royalties, as far as I can tell, and should be ashamed. The Band were excellent because they were a collaborative effort, not because Robbie Robertson was a genius. Helm wrote a marvelous book on the history of The Band, including the topic of publishing credits, if you haven’t read it, you should.
His voice doesn’t quite have the range that it used to soar to, but it still contains a lot of power. I don’t know enough about drumming to recognize if his drumming skills are still stellar, but some say his drumming is still good:
Helm survived a bout with throat cancer that was diagnosed in 1998, and his voice is noticeably more weathered than it once was, but in many respects the additional nooks and crannies suit this material beautifully; his interpretations of traditional rural folk songs like “Poor Old Dirt Farmer,” “Little Birds,” and “False Hearted Lover Blues” sound thoroughly authentic but with a bracing sense of force and commitment in Helm’s vocals, and if Steve Earle‘s “The Mountain” and Buddy & Julie Miller‘s “Wide River to Cross” aren’t venerable classics, they sound like they should be once Levon’s done with them. Though Helm adds a touch of boogie to “Got Me a Woman” and a jumped-up interpretation of the Carter Family‘s “Single Girl, Married Girl,” in this context they add some welcome spice to the stew, and Helm’s drumming remains superb. Dirt Farmer is a hard-edged but compassionate and full-hearted set of roots music from a master of the form, and it’s a welcome, inspiring return to form for Levon Helm after a long stretch of professional and personal setbacks.