[Above, L-R: Amy Helm, Levon Helm, Larry Campbell, Theresa Williams]
Last fall, Levon Helm, drummer and singer for The Band, released his first studio album in 25 years. Recorded in his barn studio in Woodstock, N.Y., the Grammy-nominated Dirt Farmer is a stirring collection of old family songs Helm learned growing up in rural Arkansas mixed with covers of songs by Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, and Paul Kennerley. The album on its on right is an accomplishment, but the story behind it—the tragedies and hardships overcome—could be the stuff of rock legend. Ten years ago, Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer and underwent harsh chemotherapy treatments that robbed him of his voice. While still recovering, his home studio burned, he declared bankruptcy and former Bandmate Rick Danko passed away unexpectedly in his sleep.
Gradually, Helm has made a strong comeback, first with his Midnight
Ramble sessions—which are casual, late-night jams with friends and
family—then with a large and lively touring band, and finally with Dirt Farmer.
From its tracklist to its dedication to Helm’s parents, the album is,
naturally, a family affair: He recorded the songs with long-time
friends Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams as well as with his
daughter, Amy Helm, a founding member of the roots-gospel act
Ollabelle. Paste spoke with Amy Helm while she was driving around New York, hiding her cell phone from passing cops.
Paste: What was your role in producing the album?
Helm: I co-produced the album with Larry Campbell, and
I really wanted the record to be a real platform for [Levon’s] vocals
and his story and for his history to really shine. And to keep it as
simple as possible. And acoustic. Larry shared the same vision, and we
began to take it one day at a time with recording. We would do a
handful of songs one day and then a week would go by, and we’d get
together for a couple of days and try some other song. My father kept
bringing songs into the fold that really rounded out the album and
allowed the vision to complete itself.
As a daughter, I don’t know. We were all working together. You know,
when you’re working on a project, you just get into that headspace. I
knew how important it was to have these songs recorded that he had
learned from his parents—from my grandparents. In that regard, I think
I was very conscious of wanting to preserve those songs and record them
so that they could be passed along and shared. And I’d say that’s
pretty much how it all felt to me, the process of it.
Paste: How did you come across some of these songs?
Helm: Well, my dad had been taught a lot of songs.
Both his parents played music. His father—my papaw—played guitar and
sang at dances, and my mamaw was a strong alto church singer. That was
just something that they did. A lot of the songs on the record,
including “Little Birds,” “The Blind Child,” “The Girl I Left Behind”
and “Poor Old Dirt Farmer,” were songs that they would sing when they
were growing up. I had learned a couple of them before the album; I’d
heard him sing a few of them before, and he taught me a few. But
actually, as we’d begun the process of recording, a lot of songs came
back to him. And lyrics came back. “Blind Child” is a good example. He
called me one morning and said, ‘I dreamed the whole thing. I got it. I
got the second verse, and I got the third verse. I remembered all of
it.’ It would just come back to him almost in daydreams because we were
starting to really get into the idea... He was thinking a lot about his
parents and thinking a lot about those songs. That was pretty cool, to
watch him resurrect them.
Paste: How did you come across some of the newer songs by Steve Earle (“The Mountain”) and Buddy Miller (“Wide River to Cross”)?
Helm: The Steve Earle song he had heard on television
and just fell in love with it. And he had been talking about if for
months. He didn’t have a copy of it, so we got a copy and we all
listened to it about two or three times and had some ideas to change
the time signature and fool around with it. And then we went right in
and cut it. I think a lot of that was his stuff like [covering that
song] was his idea.
He had been talking about wanting to do a Stanley Brothers song a
lot, so we had been kicking around a lot of songs, and then Larry
Campbell had the idea of doing “False Hearted Lover” with that
particular train beat behind it, which I think is so strong. And the
Paul Kennerley song. A lot of these songs, much like the ones from his
childhood, were songs that he just loved singing and loved teaching
people, songs that had always been around and had always been part of
his repertoire of just jamming and just sitting around and playing
music. I think a lot of it was stuff that he had had in mind for a long
time to cut.
Paste: It sounds like a very casual recording session.
Helm: Yeah, it was. We didn’t have it structured.
Either he came in with a song idea or Larry did, or, on occasion, I
did. And we would just try it. We recorded lots. I think we recorded
over 26 songs. We’d give it a shot, turn it around and try it a
different way. Sometimes in the middle of recording one day, another
song would come to mind and we would try that on the fly. It was very
loose. We didn’t record for a chunk of time. We would find time when
all of us could come up for a day, and then one of us would have to run
out on the road or go do a show and we’d come back together three weeks
later. It kind of went like that over the course of a year.
Paste: What is Levon Helm like to work with in the studio?
Helm: He’s a diva! He’s right up there with Barbra
Streisand! (laughing) I’m only joking. It was pretty incredible to
watch him sing and to watch him play the drums the way that he does. It
was very exciting to be in the studio with him because he would come up
with an idea and we’d try a take and hit the record button, and he
would just execute these songs and be kicking so much ass! As a
musician, sometimes I would have moments in the studio with him where
Byron [Isaacs, who played bass and sang on Dirt Farmer] and
I, or Larry and Byron and Teresa and I would be there with our jaws
dropped because we just couldn’t believe what this man was doing.
It’s exciting to be around older musicians who’ve really mastered their
instrument and who bring to the table such a different energy and
who’ve learned not to give a shit or to give a shit about the right
thing, you know? That kind of real authenticity. That was very exciting
to be around for me as a singer. I was in awe of it. He knows what
feels right to him and he knows what doesn’t, and it’s interesting to
watch how his intuitive relationship to the music really sculpted each
song. Our sounding board was that part of him - if [a passage] needed
to slow down or speed up, or if the key needed to change, or if he
needed to try a different intention with the song. His musicality sang
out very loudly what it needed.
Paste: What sorts of obstacles did you face with this album?
Helm: We didn’t have too many obstacles. We really
didn’t. It was a really cool process. Sometimes, when you’re trying
songs like that, you might try one and it doesn’t quite catch the light
as quickly as some of the other ones did. Some songs took longer than
others, and you have to sort of step back from them. It was interesting
to be there in a producer role and practice the patience to see if
something is going to come around and become something you can use or
knowing when to let it go and quit trying to create a song that maybe
just isn’t fitting.
Paste: Do you have any favorites?
Helm: My favorite performance is “A Train Robbery.” We
were all sitting upstairs in the other part of the control room, and he
did that song in one take. All of us, we just couldn’t believe it, to
hear his voice in the room sounding so strong. As a singer, he’s just
brilliant. It was like taking a master class. There’s a part of that
that’s just very cool to be around. That was my favorite performance
because I remember getting chills hearing him sing that.
Paste: In the liner notes, he describes Dirt Farmer as the culmination of “an age of miracles.”
Helm: The studio burned down. He rebuilt his house. He
went through bankruptcy. He’s been through it all. He’s truly been to
hell and back. When I talk about hearing that authenticity or this
different thing that he brings to the table, it’s because he’s someone
who cares about different things. The things that matter to him have
changed. He knows what counts and what doesn’t. And there’s a power in
that, and a confidence and a self-reliance that all musicians—or anyone
who loves music—can hear and respond to. He did have to get his
confidence back. Part of what makes his singing now so strong is that
he wasn’t afraid to admit that he was very scared. He was scared to
lose his voice and to get back up on stage and know that people had
high expectations because he’s already made a name. But he wasn’t
afraid to admit any of that.
Paste: Are you going to tour behind Dirt Farmer, or get back to recording?
Helm: Yeah, hopefully we’re going to tour and continue
recording. It’d be great to record as much as possible and to work with
this group of people who have a really good family feel.
Paste: Can you tell me a little about his influence in your own music?
Helm:do anything to be able to sing like that. I put him right up there with
Mavis Staples or Dolly Parton or any of my other heroes. If I could
sing a song like him or Richard [Manuel] or Rick [Danko], I’d be really
psyched. You put on one of the songs that they sang and you get sort of
inspired to try a little harder and aim for something in yourself that
has the same level of soul. I count myself as a big fan.