A nondescript back road winding up the Catskill Mountains leads to Levon Helm’s 18-acre spread that’s as mystical as the rural music he made with The Band: Whispering pines line a lake stocked with bass, a mutt named Muddy roams the grounds, and a mother bear with three cubs is known to sit on a small hill outside the home studio to listen to the racket coming from inside its walls.
Against this backdrop, Helm hosts a series of Saturday-night house concerts he calls the “Midnight Ramble,” designed after the traveling tent shows he attended in his Arkansas childhood. For a suggested donation of $100 each, 100 people receive invitations to travel to Woodstock, N.Y., for a night of music topped by Helm and his band playing a nearly two-hour set of rollicking American roots music.
Besides the obvious convenience—“I love getting out of the shower, going next door and going to work,” he says, with a laugh—the shows are a testament to the cancer survivor’s rejuvenation. In 1997, Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer and subsequently lost his ability to speak. He continued to drum, but session work was scarce and a home foreclosure loomed. The situation came at the end of a troubled decade. In 1991, a fire burned his home and studio to the ground, and the unexpected death of former bandmate Rick Danko in 1999 signaled an era’s end.
But not long after that tragic event, when it seemed as if nothing could go right, Helm noticed his near-inaudible whisper begin to grow in volume. The 66-year-old endured 28 radiation treatments from which his voice fully, incredibly emerged. “It’s certainly a miracle for me and a dream come true,” he says. “I never thought I would sing and play like I used to be able to do. I thank God. Every song is a celebration for me.”
WALTZ ’TIL THE WEE HOURS
Like The Band, Helm’s Rambles, held twice a month, are musical trips down the Mississippi River, from Chicago blues (the Muddy Waters staples “I’m Ready” and “40 Days and 40 Nights”) to Cajun (“Evangeline”) to Southern soul (“I Want to Know”) and rock chestnuts (“Hang Up My Rock ’N Roll Shoes,” “Let the Good Times Roll”).
“This is all about having a good time playing music—for the joy of playing music and nothing else,” says Larry Campbell, the longtime Bob Dylan guitarist who’s producing Helm’s first album since 1982.
During a mid-August Ramble performance, Helm starts with mandolin, later switching to drums, which he continues to hit with pluck and strength. His voice is raspier but with tender inflections. Setlists are decided on the fly. Despite a few Band obscurities (“Don’t Ya Tell Henry,” “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,” “Ophelia”), he is resistant to play the songs for which he’s best known.
“People love to hear one of the good old tunes they associate from their younger years,” Helm says, “so I throw one or two in every time and try to make it fun for them. They understand it’s about now. It ain’t about what we used to do.”
ROOTS AND BRANCHES
Helm insists in his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire, that old bandmate Robbie Robertson claimed publishing credits for Band songs that were collaborative. But whoever you side with, the Rambles are returning warranted attention to Helm’s much-deserved stature as a major figure in American music. Guests ranging from Elvis Costello to Emmylou Harris have showed up to pay their respects. And My Morning Jacket recently recorded a cover of “It Makes No Difference” in Helm’s studio for a Band tribute album due out next year.
“He’s ground zero of the Americana genre,” Campbell says. “What he did with The Band was take all those root elements and make a genre out of it.”
With many harmonies, peppering horns and casual interaction with the musicians—who play steps away from fans—the Rambles certainly resurrect The Band’s communal warmth. In the control room, a candle burns for both Danko and The Band’s Richard Manuel (who committed suicide in 1986, after a long battle with alcoholism and drug addiction), and Helm has set up tributes in the studio’s bluestone fireplace to childhood friends who died in Vietnam. He doesn’t deny playing at the Rambles is bittersweet, but there’s still joy in it. “We got some good spirits with us every day,” he says.
So far he’s recorded more than 20 tracks in his home studio during sessions organized by former Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell and a band that includes Campbell’s wife Teresa Williams, Helm’s daughter Amy (of Ollabelle), Byron Isaacs on bass and “any other favors I can call in,” Helm says.
The sound is pure mountain country, mostly ancient tunes Helm—who plays drums, mandolin and banjo on the record— first heard growing up in cotton-country Arkansas, including “Little Birds,” a song he learned from his father that The Band played in its early touring days but never released. “We played around with that tune,” he says, “but we never did get the right kind of a cut on it.”
Besides more recent covers, including Steve Earle’s “The Mountain” and Buddy and Julie Miller’s “Wide River to Cross,” the album includes Helm’s Clarence Williams update, “My Country’s Got a Hole in It,” a fiery screed torn from the headlines. “They try to scare us every morning,” he sings “With this a-wartime junk / When it’s all about the money / They can’t steal enough.”
“That’s what it feels like,” Helm says. “The whole country’s been put on sale.”
The album is on a label “yet to be determined,” Campbell says, but it’s expected to be released early in 2007. Helm says he’ll even consider touring if fans want to hear him sing the new music along with the old.
“I’m encouraged just to be able to attempt it. I don’t expect miracles out of myself, but I’m not as critical as I used to be.”