Levon Helm: Dirt Farmer (Vanguard, 2007)
Review by Peter VineyThis wasn't originally written for The Band Site, so will contain information already well-known to regular readers.
Nearly forty years ago Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson stepped out at Winterland, San Francisco for their first concert as The Band. Ralph Gleason reviewed them in "Rolling Stone":
They played four songs the audience had not heard them do before: Little Birdies (sic), Levon's father's song, which is a purely country ditty (that's the right word too) with a lovely light feeling to it; Don't Ya Tell Henry which is another that Levon and Rick sing... and an achingly beautiful song about "no more cane," I don't know the title; and then Little Richard's Slippin and Slidin.
A fragment of the show was bootlegged, including Little Bird(ie)s, and for years Band fans wondered if a proper recording would ever emerge. When the official Basement Tapes were issued by Columbia in 1975, a studio version of the traditional Ain't No More Cane was revealed. Years later, in Levon Helm's autobiography, This Wheel's On Fire, he explained that recording Ain't No More Cane in late 1968 was where The Band first discovered their unique vocal blend. This further links it to Little Birds, because in the Dirt Farmer sleeve notes, Levon says:
Little Birds in particular was my first understanding of harmonies and how they should stack, parallel and support each other.
The Band united many strands of American music, and chose to explore some in more detail: soul, blues, country ballads, gospel, rock and roll... but the Band members never quite returned to the pure Americana world conjured up by those early versions of Little Birds and Ain't No More Cane. That is until now.
Levon Helm would never have described himself as the "voice of the Band" because he was one of three equally great vocalists with Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. Levon always insisted that "Richard was our lead singer", but for many listeners, it's Levon's signature Arkansas accent that is most immediately recognisable. It's the lead voice of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, four out of five verses of The Weight, Rag Mama Rag and Up On Cripple Creek. When The Band reunited (without Robbie Robertson) in the 1990s, Levon sang lead vocal on Springsteen's Atlantic City, the best of their 90s records. With both Richard Manuel and Rick Danko dead, Levon is the only surviving voice of the three. When he lost his voice to cancer in the late 90s that seemed to be the end of any Band related vocals. That is until now.
Levon Helm's Dirt Farmer says it all in the iconic sleeve photos by Ahron R. Foster. It has the best sleeve design of any Band or solo Band member project since The Band (aka the Brown Album) with its Elliot Landy photos. It shows Helm literally back at his roots in the Arkansas fields. After surviving throat cancer in 1998, Levon Helm never expected to sing again. He continued forming blues / R&B groups, like Levon and the Crowmatix, the Barnburners and the Levon Helm Band, and playing drums, guitar, mandolin and harmonica. In an unprecedented and imaginative venture, he started hosting regular Midnight Rambles at his barn studio in Woodstock, where the audience came to him on Saturday nights. Gradually the voice returned, and now we have Dirt Farmer, a project inspired by his daughter Amy Helm (from roots band Ollabelle) and ex-Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell. Teresa Williams joined Amy Helm on harmony vocals, and the band was fleshed out by Byron Isaacs (bass, vocal) and Glen Patscha (pump organ), both from Ollabelle, with Brian Mitchell on piano and accordion. Levon Helm is every drummer's favourite drummer, and here he plays drums, guitar and mandolin. As well as sharing production with Amy Helm, Larry Campbell plays guitar, fiddle and mandolin.
Levon's late 1970s and early 1980s solo albums suffered from a lack of original material and a lack of sufficiently melodic material, apart from the now hard-to-find American Son. Anyone who has followed Levon Helm's post-Band career would be expecting a blues-based, R&B feel, as on his solo albums or the two volumes of CD / DVD releases from the Midnight Rambles. Not so. This album takes us way back to the songs Levon learned as a child. The territory it inhabits is the one Bruce Springsteen sought in Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad and the Seeger Sessions. It's the territory Dylan's been exploring in detail for the last fifteen years. If you like them, you'll love Dirt Farmer. The difference is that while Springsteen and Dylan embrace and perform in a traditional style, Levon Helm is simply the authentic article.
I'm wary of the word folk because it suggests something sixties and earnest. Levon & The Hawks were quoted as being dubious about joining Dylan as his backing group in 1965, because they "didn't like strummers". This is folk in the sense that the Harry Smith Anthology is folk. Levon Helm wasn't present for much of The Hawks' basement collaboration with Bob Dylan, returning only in the Fall of 1967 after nearly two years away. This is seen as the period that converted The Hawks from straight rock and rollers and exposed them (via Dylan) to the wealth of traditional songs. It seems that Levon never needed this education... it was part of his life anyway.
There's traditional material here like Poor Old Dirt Farmer and The Girl I Left Behind mixed with carefully chosen songs by Steve Earle (The Mountain), J.B. Lenoir (Feelin' Good), Byron Isaacs (Calvary), Buddy & Julie Miller (Wide River To Cross). There are two songs (A Train Robbery, Got Me A Woman) from Paul Kennerley with whom Levon worked on the Legend of Jesse James album, which also featured Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris and Charlie Daniels.
The album includes Little Birds, the song Band fans have been waiting for since 1969, and it's twice as long this time round. The Girl I Left Behind and The Blind Child are others that Levon's dad, Diamond Helm, taught him.
Levon in his sixties does not have the sheer power of his Band singing (he describes it himself in the liner notes as "over halfway back"), but he's as expressive a singer as he ever was, and unlike Dylan, he can still hit all the notes. The depth of feeling that he puts into the songs shows not only the influences of his childhood, but the fact that he's become an accomplished film actor in the meantime. Like the Harry Smith Anthology, there is a wide range of different roots styles. False Hearted Lover motors along like the Seeger sessions. Anna Lee sounds like an Appalachian ballad with strong echoes of old England in it, almost Fairport Convention. J.B. Lenoir's Feelin' Good is a laid-back blowsy blues. In his self-penned sleeve notes, Levon says "All young musicians should sprinkle any dance gig with lots of J.B. (Lenoir) songs." Poor Old Dirt Farmer is in the Woody Guthrie songs of the depression mode, except that no song of that era had deceptively simple but brilliant drumming like this. The anthemic Wide River to Cross sounds like a Band outtake... which is where we came in. This is Levon's best solo album without question. It's as good as anything that any of them have done since The Last Waltz.