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Levon Helm: Dirt Farmer

by Kay Cordtz

Review from Elmore Magazine, December 2007. Published with permission from the author. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

[cover art]
Levon Helm: Dirt Farmer
(Vanguard Records)

Levon Helm's voice can conjure all the spirits of our folk music. It was the greatest of his gifts to The Band, and defined his solo work until silenced for nearly a decade by illness. Here, his daughter Amy and master musician Larry Campbell use that spellbinding voice to produce 12 songs that create an emotional world through stories as old as the legend of Jesse James and as ripped-from-the-headlines as the "ghosts in the tunnels that the company sealed," from a sublime version of Steve Earle's "The Mountain." On traditional numbers like "Little Birds" and new ones like Byron Isaacs' haunting "Calvary," Helm and his band lay bare some of life's lessons through simple words and melodies that contain America's mystic chords of memory.

Helm's solo voice is enough to convey betrayal's sting on "False Hearted Lover Blues," but many more shades emerge when he sings with others -- he's playful on "Single Girl, Married Girl," bawdy on J.B. Lenoir's "Feeling Good," and soul-weary on "Wide River to Cross." Amy Helm and Teresa Williams bring other primary colors to the record's gorgeous palette of harmonies that rejoice on "Got Me A Woman," then weep for the fate of "Anna Lee." And when their voices declare, "We will burn your train to cinders/ so throw that money on down" in "A Train Robbery," it will make your hair stand on end.

Larry Campbell sweetens every track with his simple arrangement and elegant string parts. His hypnotic fiddle on "Wide River to Cross" and the duet with Brian Mitchell's sweet, sad accordion on "The Blind Child" are almost unbearably lovely. But the greatest gift of this heroic band is showcasing the resurrection of Levon's voice, back in all its defiant, lusty, heartbroken glory.

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