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Levon's Dirt Farm

My favorite member of The Band was always Levon Helm. I was never a huge fan of their music, just as I was never much of a Bob Dylan fan compared to a lot of people I know. But for some reason, I liked the Band songs on which Helm took the vocal lead a lot more than the others. He just seemed so damn real - to me, his voice was the main connection that The Band had with the painful, soulful heritage of American roots music. Even though Robbie Robertson wrote the songs, he and the late Rick Danko and the other guys kind of seemed more like rock stars in comparison.

Helm, now 67, a cancer survivor and sometime movie actor, is getting set to release his first solo studio album in 25 years, and from the buzz, as well as from a few audio clips available pre-release, it seems to reinforce his role as the voice that perhaps most personified The Band's current of proto-Americana, and is also a pretty amazing performance for a guy who, for years after his 1998 throat cancer diagnosis, could not speak, let along sing.

levon_dirt.jpgCalled Dirt Farmer, you can tell from the title it's gonna be pretty damn rootsy. On the cover is a lean, wrinkly old man who, good God, is Levon Helm. He has the look of a cancer survivor, kind of gaunt, a bit cadaverous, and sporting a chagrined expression as he stares down at a farm field that seems to be saying, "I've lost everything." You can just imagine this guy channeling the rural blues as he sings about life, death and all the hurt and joy in between.

Dirt Farmer, which will be released on Vanguard Records on Oct. 30, has 13 tracks which indeed include some traditional numbers, including "Poor Old Dirt Farmer," as well as "Little Birds" and "The Girl I Left Behind," which Helm says are among the very first songs his parents taught him as a young boy growing up in Arkansas. Another is the Stanley Brothers' "False Hearted Lover Blues," which he turns into a hard-driving roots rock tune using his now seemingly fully-restored primitive wail (sounding very much like Ralph Stanley himself), and backed by the ultra-talented Larry Campbell on guitar and his own powerful drumming.

On "Anna Lee," he's joined in the vocal harmonies by his daughter Amy Helm, who also co-produced the album along with Campbell. Amy Helm (of the band Ollabelle) guided the project, which was recorded at Levon Helm's Woodstock, N.Y., barn/studio. That's also a tale in itself - most of Levon's dream studio burned down around the time of his cancer diagnosis, and threw him into dire financial straits. He declared bankruptcy, and still faces a mountain of debt. Since then, the Helms have hosted a regular series of fund-raising concerts at the Catskill Mountains studio in an effort to pay the bills and to ensure Levon's musical legacy. Called the Midnight Rambles, they've turned into low-key, invitation-only, All-Star jam happenings that have attracted an impressive list of stars from Elvis Costello to Nick Lowe to Pinetop Perkins.

The new album also includes covers of songs by Steve Earle ("The Mountain"), J.B Lenior ("Feelin' Good"), and a Carter Family tune, "Single Girl, Married Girl," which, in Levon's hands, becomes a New Orleans-style shuffle that could pass for anything he did in the '70s with The Band. Listening to it, it's eerie to hear such very distinct echoes of that same touch that drove ol' Dixie down, despite fire, tragedy, illness and the sheer passage of time.

It also makes me realize for once and all that Helm's utterly distinct vocal style may have been The Band's most direct line to the world of roots music that they were reinterpreting, along with the likes of Dylan, the Byrds and Gram Parsons, for the Baby Boom generation. As such, his position as a key bridge between popular '70s rock and its country/blues forbears is probably overdue for a more thorough celebration.

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See what else is rattlin' around Don's Root Cellar.



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Posted on September 19, 2007


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