A while back, I was watching one of those “the making of an album” documentary discs. This one was about the year The Band made their self titled album The Band. I thought it was a hoot to hear all these music critic types talking about how this album represented the beginnings of a rebirth of interest in “Americana” music.
Here’s a group of musicians, four-fifths of whom hadn’t been further south then Ontario Canada until they started playing professional music, and they’re being credited with being the focal point for the rebirth of interest in American folk music. It’s not as if their early professional career had much to do with it either. They started off playing behind “Rompin” Ronnie Hawkins (“The Hawk”) who was pure Rock & Roll.
Heck, he was so un-American that he left Arkansas and moved to Canada where he’s lived since the sixties. He was the undisputed King of the scene in Toronto, and anybody who was anybody stayed with him out in his suburban home in Mississauga on the outskirts of Toronto. In 1969, when John Lennon showed up, he stayed out there, as did Janis Joplin and other luminaries of the era.
Since the old time music influence didn’t come from that Good Ole Boy, it must have come from the fifth member in the band who just happened to hail from Ronnie’s home state of Arkansas, Levon Helm. After all it was Levon who wrote “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, and his was the only voice that sounded like it should be singing “The Weight”. With all due respect to Rick Danko, an Ontario accent just doesn’t cut it for something that sounds like Southern Gospel music.
As I tend to be out of touch when it comes to news about people’s personal life, it was only upon watching that same video that I found out Levon was in recovery from throat cancer. He had never been the biggest of men, and now he looked almost cadaverous. His voice, not the most dulcet of instruments in the first place, could only have sustained God knows what damage from chemotherapy, surgery, and cancer. I never thought I’d hear him sing again.
Then last year I reviewed a Holmes Brother album, and, lo and behold, there was Levon and Amy Helm singing vocals on one song. The voice might have sounded a bit thin, and even rougher around the edges than ever before – but it still had the same character and emotional depth that I remembered from his days in The Band and his sporadic solo career. It was great to hear him again, but I still didn’t think there would be an album forthcoming anytime soon.
Never have I been so glad to be wrong; Vanguard Records has just released Dirt Farmer, Levon’s first disc since his diagnosis and treatment for his throat cancer in 1998. In honour, and probably with a whole bunch of gratitude, of being allowed to come back again to health and a career, he chose to make this disc in homage to the people who first got him interested in music – his parents.
Dirt Farmer is a mix of traditional songs that he learnt from them, given new arrangements by Mr. Helm, and original songs that are written by various friends which fit into the overall sound and feel of the disc. If there was ever any doubt about where The Band’s Americana roots came from, a listen to this disc will dispel them. The roots of this disc run deeper into the soil of rural America then any old oak in the Appalachians.
A year ago when I heard Levon Helm sing, his voice was still a far cry from what it used to be when it was the power behind some of The Band’s most potent songs. Truthfully, that hasn’t changed any, but power isn’t the only test of a singer’s quality. Sometimes, what matters most is an ability to communicate with the listener in as honest a manner as possible. Given the nature of the music that’s being played on Dirt Farmer, that ability is by far a greater asset than being able to break the sound barrier.
Levon Helm has always had an incredibly expressive voice, and on Dirt Farmer that comes to forefront. Maybe it’s in compensation for his lack of volume, but I think it was always there and he’s now trusting in its ability to carry a song. However you want to look at it, the result is the same – wonderfully sung renditions of emotionally powerful songs by one of the most distinctive voices in popular music.
There is an inherent honesty to his voice that ensures songs that in another person’s hands – the title track “Dirt Farmer”, for instance – could have become sentimental pap. But when Levon sings about the trials and tribulations of the sharecropper whose nowhere even close to getting by, he sounds like he’s actually lived that life.
Of course, there’s more then just Levon Helm on this disc, and it would be criminal not to mention the incredible vocal harmonies that his daughter Amy and Teresa Williams provide. Not only do they smooth out some of the rougher edges to Levon’s lead vocals, they also complement them. Instead of making whatever lack of refinement his voice might have these days stand out, they work with him to bring out the best in the material.
The best thing about Dirt Farmer is that it’s not a good album for a guy coming back from throat cancer; it’s a good album, period. It might be the first solo disc that Levon Helm has put out since he started going through treatment for his illness, but what I heard was a recording made by a man with a great deal of integrity – and a love for the music that he sings.
That makes it a heck of lot better then most discs being released in this day and age.
NOTE: Although the disc isn’t officially on sale until the end of October, Levon is selling it through his web site for those who can’t wait.