Levon Helm














Levon Helm
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In the waning days of the previous century, Levon Helm hit a detour on the Endless Highway, and it led to 40 miles of bad road. The hard times started without warning for the legendary drummer/singer/heartbeat of The Band, solo artist, author and actor, as his beloved barn studio in Woodstock, N.Y. was ravaged by fire. They further intensified in 1998, when Helm underwent surgery for throat cancer, followed by 28 radiation treatments, which threatened to silence his one-of-a-kind voice for good. A year later, he lost his beloved bandmate Rick Danko. Considering the heartache, pain and anxiety he went through, it’s understandable that Levon views these last few years as an “age of miracles.” Three or four years ago, he regained the use of his singing voice, and gingerly at first, he began to test it out during shows by his informal group the Barn Burners. In 2004, he launched the Midnight Ramble Sessions, which took place at the rebuilt Levon Helm Studios. The monthly concert series has featured Levon singing and playing with an ever-shifting cast of friends including the late Johnny Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, John Sebastian, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Nick Lowe, Gillian Welch, Elvis Costello and Donald Fagen. With his confidence restored, it was only a matter of time before Levon would employ his studio for its original purpose. His vocalist/musician daughter Amy provided the initial impetus. “Amy encouraged me to go all the way back and try to record some of the family songs from home that we always loved best,” Levon wrote in his liner notes. That simple notion led to the undertaking that now bears the name Dirt Farmer, fittingly dedicated to his parents, Nell and Diamond Helm, who taught the youngster several of the songs he revisits here. This utterly timeless, altogether mesmerizing album (Dirt Farmer Music/Vanguard Records) is Levon’s first solo studio recording in a quarter century. The project started informally in the spring of 2005, after Amy approached multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, a veteran of Bob Dylan’s endless tour, with the idea of recording some vocal duets with her dad. “The three of us got together,” Campbell recalls, “Levon started singing some songs that he’d learned as a kid, and it just knocked me out. At that point, the concept of doing a duets record began to evolve into something bigger. Amy and I agreed to co-produce a record with Levon playing drums and doing acoustic versions of tunes he’d learned as a kid along with tunes in a similar mode by modern songwriters. We were doing it without any goal in mind, just to record the stuff, because this was just a year after Levon had started singing again, and his voice sounded so credible and compelling—especially on this more organic, woodsy kind of stuff.” Campbell has known Helm since the ’80s, when the young musician worked at New York’s Lone Star Café where The Band frequently played, sometimes joining Levon onstage. Later, while touring with Dylan, Campbell sat in with Levon’s blues band, and the musical relationship deepened after he left Dylan in 2004. The comfort level the two friends established kept the vibes laid-back and upbeat as the nascent project took shape. Present at those early tracking sessions, which were primarily cut live off the floor, were Campbell on acoustic guitar, mandolin or fiddle; bassist Byron Isaacs of Olabelle, who formed the rhythm section with Helm; and keyboardist Brian Mitchell from Levon’s band, with Amy and Teresa Williams, Campbell’s Tennessee-born wife on harmony vocals. “I was glad it was Amy’s suggestion that Teresa sing with her, because I try to avoid nepotism,” Campbell says with a laugh. “She and Amy sing wonderfully together, and when you put their two voices with Levon’s, it’s just magical.” During overdubbing, George Receli, another member of Dylan’s road band, laid down percussion on certain tracks, and Olabelle’s Glen Patscha added some pump organ here and there. The rustic sounds Levon and his cohorts were making melded perfectly with the material. Likewise, the traditional songs Levon had chosen—“The Girl I Left Behind,” “The Poor Old Dirt Farmer,” “Little Birds,” “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “Blind Child”—blended seamlessly with Paul Kennerley’s “A Train Robbery” and “Got Me a Woman,” Julie and Buddy Miller’s “Wide River to Cross,” Steve Earle’s “The Mountain” (with Julie and Buddy singing backing vocals), Laurelyn Dossett’s “Anna Lee” and Byron Isaacs’ “Calvary.” Naturally, the Stanley Brothers’ “False Hearted Lover” and J.B. Lenoir’s “Feelin’ Good” slid right into the pocket as well. “We would go up to Levon’s studio sporadically, for two or three days at a time, try a bunch of songs, and if something felt good, we’d record it,” Campbell recalls. “It was just a total labor of love. It reminded me a lot of what I know of the process of how those early Band records were done—you’d just sorta hang out and have a good time playing music, and when something comes up that’s worth recording, you put it on tape. This went on for a year, and as we progressed, the stuff started sounding more and more special, like something had to be done with it. And then everything started to snowball. Steve Buckingham at Vanguard showed great interest in it, and he made us an amazing offer. That’s how we ended up there.” To say that Levon, who has played such a major part in so many indelible records, is proud of Dirt Farmer would be a gross understatement. In his notes, he cited the key roles played by the members of the core-recording unit: “Byron Isaacs played wonderful bass parts and deserves MVP honors for rounding out the rhythm section. As an added bonus he wrote ‘Calvary’ and gave Amy and Teresa another opportunity to create a one-of-a-kind arrangement. Their choice of notes and beautiful harmonies were always perfect for these songs. Their natural blend is another gift. We tried to let the songs dictate the instrumentation and our performances.” As for Campbell and Mitchell, Levon wrote, “Their playing always set a high mark for us all to play up to, and everyone hit the mark.” “Levon represents everything in American music that appeals to me,” says Campbell. “All genres within what is called Americana—rock ’n’ roll, blues, country, bluegrass, old-time music and soul—he can do with authority. Levon starts singing it and you believe it.” Campbell’s assessment has been echoed in reviews of early dates on Levon’s Ramble on the Road tour. String Theory Media’s Craig Havighurst described a July performance at Nashville’s hallowed Ryman Auditorium as “one of the greatest nights of music I've ever seen… Even while singing his heart out through bright white smiling teeth, Levon simply owned the heartbeat of the songs, dragging the beat with just the perfect microsecond delay when needed, leaning over the beat when a song needed more insistence. It was simply a tour de force and no small surprise that the gangly artist I fell for watching The Last Waltz is still with us in full force at the age of 67.” Reinvigorated, Levon has also added to his filmography, which includes memorable appearances in Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Right Stuff, with roles in Antoine Fuqua’s 2007 feature Shooter and Bertrand Tavernier’s upcoming In the Electric Mist.
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12/21/2010 - Levon Helm hospitalized for one week - Read More
05/22/2010 - Levon Helm 70th Birthday Jubilee Concert June 6th At Hunter Mountain - Read More
04/22/2010 - Levon Helm and Friends Ramble at the Ryman - Read More
02/16/2010 - Levon Helm focus of documentary - Read More
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