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Recommendation/Review: Levon's American Son

By James Tappenden

From the Usenet newsgroup, 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:

  • Playing with a distinctive bass guitarist like Rick or Duck Dunn masks the distinctive bass drum.
  • Sometimes - like on the Muddy Waters Woodstock Album - Levon is trying to just power a song forward in a simple way, and so he just leaves aside the fancy tricks.
  • Maybe these sessions just took place on one of Levon's best weeks.

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 1

"Watermelon Time in Georgia"
A great song - sets the tone for the album with a quirky beat and a joyful spirit. Nothing else on side one quite matches the standard this one sets, I think - you have to go to side two for that.
"Dance Me Down Easy", "Violet Eyes", "Stay With Me"
Each of these is OK, though nothing but the drumming struck me as all that remarkable. "Violet Eyes" is a ballad. It is more effective than Levon's attempts at balladry tend to be, mostly because of the unobtrusive instrumentation allows his voice to have the soft distance that works so well on the studio version of "Night they Drove Old Dixie Down".
"America's Farms"
At first I thought this song was by far the weak point of the album: as far as its lyrics are concerned, I still think it is. They are a fairly unimaginative variation on the "Things are bad, let's get the farms back in business" motif whose vogue came and went in the early eighties. But musically the song is quite engaging, and it grew on me after repeated listenings. In addition to the striking drumming, there is some subtle lead guitar work.

Side 2

Starts strong and ends even stronger.
Nice arrangements on this one - understated guitar and piano touches set off Levon's vocal and drumming.
"China Girl"
"Nashville Wimmen"
A striking song mixing the grief and vaguely menacing anger of a broken-hearted country rube who can't cope with the wiles of the beautiful, sophisticated women of the big city. ("If it wasn't for the powder, and the fine toothed comb/ If it wasn't for the powder, the paint and the fine-toothed comb/ Them Nashville women, they sure wouldn't have no home... If the Blues was whiskey, I'd stay drunk all the time/A little purty woman loved me/ I let her rob me blind.")
Levon's voice finds just the tone to make this song stand out, and the lead guitar touches from Carter are fantastic. Levon and Carter really seem to be communicating on this one, as the voicings and guitar punctuations at the end of each vocal line work extremely well. Someone adds an understated harmonica that complements everything quite well.
"Blue House of Broken Hearts"
A thrilling song - the highlight of the album for me. Perhaps the most moving ballad I have ever heard Levon sing. Much of the credit had to go to whoever is contributing the powerful harmony vocal. He drops out and comes back in with superb timing.
"Sweet Georgia Wine"
A great closer - a fun song about a ne'er do well who can't keep his hands off the underage sherrif's daughter. The drumming is especially engaging, and Carter responds with excellent guitar weaving in and out of the wild bass drum rhythm. Someone adds some nice organ in there too.

This album is much harder to find than the first two solo albums Levon produced, but it is well worth hunting down. (IMHO)


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