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Arkansas runs deep in Levon

by Linda Caillouet

This story first appeared in the Arkansas Gazette May 06, 2005.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Copyright © 2005, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. All rights reserved.

You can take Levon Helm out of Arkansas, but there's no taking Arkansas out of him. The former drummer and lead singer for The Band doesn't come home too often. For years, Helm, who'll be 65 this month, has lived and worked out of a Woodstock, N.Y., farm house and studio.

But when he's here, he is home, and the graying friends he's known since childhood in Turkey Scratch and nearby Marvell envelope him. They've shared so much -- like riding to the school bus stop by horse when dirt roads were bad -- they might as well be family.

They were all there Monday night when Helm and his new band jammed at a private party in Little Rock's old Union Station. Before the show, I was in the greenroom asking Helm three questions:

  • "What did you do in between the wedding reception you played Saturday and tonight?" (My guess would have been Memphis' Beale Street Music Festival.)

  • "Why won't you sing any of The Band's songs your voice made famous?"

  • "Is Anna Lee Williams from Turkey Scratch (immortalized in the song, "The Weight") still around? Do you keep in touch? How can I track her down?"
Helm did go east Sunday, but not to Memphis. Friends and home cooking in Marvell were the draw. Yes, he's a musical legend who's graced the cover of Rolling Stone. And, yes, he's a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But the guy still celebrates cornbread.

When his friends' 85-yearold mother, Arlena Cavette of Marvell who's known Helm since he was 3 and their families lived nearby, heard he was coming, she asked what he wanted to eat. His answer? "A big pot of turnip greens and cornbread." But Cavette and her daughter made more -- everything from purple hull peas to pecan pie. Still, Helm reveled in the cornbread. His lunch the next day? Leftover cornbread from a Ziploc bag and milk.

He also revels in life. Five years ago, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Now he's belting out tunes with a voice that continues to strengthen

Family ties are strong, too. His only child, Amy, was on stage with him Monday, their mutual love for each other and music undeniable. In Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, a documentary of The Band, Helm plays mandolin and sings "Evangeline" with Emmylou Harris, but now it's a father-daughter duet.

Friends, speaking candidly at a later, even more private party in a suite at the Peabody, say Helm was done wrong through the years by both a fellow Band member who took full credit on songs he shouldn't have and others.

When asked why he won't sing The Band classics -- "The Weight," "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" -- Helm speaks only in the positive.

"Those songs have already been sung. It's my daughter Amy's time now. I'm looking to the future."

And what about young Anna Lee? He's still keeping her company. "She's right over there," says Helm, pointing across the greenroom. Of course she is. He keeps his friends close.

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