Recommendation/Review: Levon's American Son
alt.music.the-band, December 1995.
After much digging through used bins I came across a copy of Levon's American Son - his third solo album (not released on CD) a few months ago and I have been listening to it regularly since. It really is very good, especially side 2 (side 1 starts strong, but I am less enthusiastic about the last few). So you can have better sense of where this opinion is coming from, you should know that I found both of the first two solo albums from Levon to be pretty ho-hum. Pleasant but no thrills. But this one really is worth hunting down. It never slips below adequate and at times (i.e. "Watermelon time in Georgia" - the opener to side one, and the fantastic three song sequence closing side two "Nashville Wimmen"/a sublime "Blue House of Broken Hearts" and a charming "Sweet Georgia Wine") it really does have the "base of the backbone thrills" that I once complained Levon's solo work lacks. (Well, I take it back now.)
The album is much more of a country effort than the first two albums. The production/arrangements by Fred Carter Jr. are much simpler and more effective than the horn-laden Duck Dunn production of Levon Helm. (Carter was the Ronnie Hawkins guitarist whose slot Robbie moved into when Carter went off to Nashville session work.) Carter plays lead guitar, some Nashville session people fill in behind him. (Also Levon in his book says that the Cates came down to pitch in. I think it is one of the Cate brothers singing harmony on "Blue House of Broken Hearts". Whoever it is, he is fantastic!)
Among the many things that stand out about this album is the drumming. Levon is really doing very interesting things. (I am not usually prone to notice drumming, so it says something that I noticed here.) I remember reading in a drumming magazine interview (with some Really Famous Drummer - can't remember who) some time ago which described Levon as a remarkable drummer in part because of a unique syncopation of the bass drum - an "independent right foot thing". I had no idea what he was talking about, but after listening to American Son, I do. The bass drum is off carrying a beat that has just a heartbeat's syncopation relative to everything else. Really effective. Normally, I guess, this is less obvious because of three possible things:
I might add that for all I know, the bullet Levon put in his butt, severing all sorts of nerves and stuff, may have ended his his ability to manage the bass drum with this kind of finesse - so this may be the only place to hear Levon at his drumming peak.
The circumstances of the recording of this album were apparently this: Levon went to the Bradley Barn recording studio in Nashville (where Ronnie Hawkins, with Levon and assorted sessionmen had recorded Ronnie Hawkins Sings the Songs of Hank Williams over twenty years earlier) to record "Blue Moon of Kentucky" for the Coal Miner's Daughter soundtrack. Things really clicked in the studio, so as Levon put it, they decided to "put some hay in the barn" by recording a bunch of less-known standards. (None of the songs is original, unless you count "Stay With Me" written by producer Carter.) The musical chemistry is infectious: even the weaker songs are redeemed by the lively and subtle musicianship of Levon, Fred Carter, and whoever else is playing.
Here is an annotated track listing:
Side 2Starts strong and ends even stronger.
This album is much harder to find than the first two solo albums Levon produced, but it is well worth hunting down. (IMHO)