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Playing "Out" of The Band: Levon Helm Remains The Voice of America

By Mark T. Gould

From Mark's Sound Waves Column, August 2009. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

Amid all the false prophecy generated by the Warhol-influenced 15 minutes of pseudo-fame surrounding the "American Idol-America's Got Talent" dumbing down of what passes for musical talent these days, it is indeed gratifying that we can still turn to the magnificent, timeless Levon Helm as the musical voice and conscience of America.

From love to remorse, from pleasure to pain, from torment to acceptance, from hope to despair, and yes, from Saturday night to Sunday morning, the road-toughened, wistful, yet still joyful Helm drawl continues to portend a musical odyssey, a grandeur and a poignant reminder of who, what and where we are.

Certainly, any account of Helm's enormous contribution to American music and culture has to start with his place in the Band, arguably the finest of all the American groups of the latter part of the 20th century. Without his magical, narrative tone of voice, those classic Band history lessons, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)," "Acadian Driftwood," and a host of others, would have been merely where they started, as songs. Great songs mind you, but just songs nonetheless.

Yet, his career beyond the Band has lasted so many more years, and his fans and listeners have been fortunate to hear that most truly American voice project a grit and intensity that has long cast an influence far beyond that group, to the point where we no longer should refer to him as "Band drummer and vocalist" Levon Helm, but rather, and more accurately, "American drummer and vocalist" Levon Helm.

Nowhere is that truth more self-evident than in Helm's latest release, "Electric Dirt," a more than formidable companion to the now two-year old "Dirt Farmer," continuing a comeback that proves, once and for all, that this native of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, has kicked throat cancer's ass and returned to the top of his game.

Where "Farmer" was more rural in nature and content, "Dirt" seems more, well, electric, although within the confines of the steadfastly even and controlled, yet joyous, manner that Helm always seems to project. Once again utilizing the myriad talents of producer, arranger, writer and uber-musician Larry Campbell, as well as the equally emotional vocals of daughter Amy Helm and the superb Teresa Williams, Helm embodies the music with his soulful southern heritage, and thus makes every song, no make that every note and word, his own.

The choice of cover songs is as customarily eclectic as the breadth of Helm's career, encompassing a wide variety of rock, blues, country and gospel, that is to say the essence of Levon Helm's musical legacy. The record runs the gamut from a cover of the Grateful Dead's "Tennessee Jed," in which Helm, as always, makes a classic his own; to Carter Stanley's "White Dove," a woeful masterpiece that harkens back to the sound of "Farmer;" to "When I Go Away," which beckons for joy over mourning at the singer's own funeral.

Helm again joins forces on "Dirt" with New Orleans musical legend Allen Toussaint, for the first time since the latter arranged the horns for the Band's classic live album, "Rock of Ages," better than three decades ago. Their "Dirt" collaborations on Randy Newman's "Kingfish" and Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" sound as powerful as anything they did back in the day.

The phrase "roots music" has become hackneyed to the point of redundancy, but, ironically, there may be no better way to describe the voice and sound, the realism and the genuineness of Levon Helm, who continues, with "Electric Dirt," to define and legitimize, musically, what it means to be an American, and to be in America.

Don't get me wrong. There are many genuine, heartfelt "Voices of America" out there, including the famous, like Springsteen, Petty, Seger, Fogerty, Dylan, Lucinda Williams, and Emmylou Harris, and the not so, but should be, famous, like Dave Alvin, Jack Sundrud, Keith Miles, Buddy and Julie Miller, Lou Ann Barton, Helen Darling, and many others.

In his unique way, though, Levon Helm remains the musical beacon, and the conscience, of all that makes America, and us, what we are today.

Long may he run.

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