Amy Helm is running late, and she’s embarrassed.
She sounds even more embarrassed when she’s told that her last name—that of her father who was the much-lauded drummer for The Band, Levon Helm—allows her plenty of latitude. Although it would presumably be easy for Helm to confine herself to the music she made with her father and the other players in The Midnight Ramble Band, she doesn’t want that. Neither would her dad, she says.
“I had spent such a long time in both The Midnight Ramble Band and [alt-country band] Ollabelle—both very strong ensemble groups that I really loved—I could feel myself grow into the next level of musicianship,” she says. “And it was time to move onto that level.”
That next level brings her to her first solo album, the just-released Didn’t It Rain, and touring with powerhouse musicians Patty Griffin and Mavis Staples. Despite her artistic chops and heritage, this album was anything but easy to create. Besides finding her footing as a solo artist and leading her group the Handsome Strangers, she also experienced a divorce, her dad’s death and the birth of her second son while making the album.
“Everyone was and is very encouraging. My father really wanted me to do it. My ex-husband [and other family members] have been encouraging and supportive,” she says. “They know I have a real need to try my own band and everything that entails, including standing in front of an audience telling stories and singing for an hour and a half.”
Helm is quick to point out that she never felt suffocated by her other bands, including The Midnight Ramble Band, which she was in for a decade.
“It was never a case to step away from the embrace. My father and those bands were incredible growth experiences for me. Really what they provided was the air under my wings to try the next level,” she says.
She seems in awe of touring with both Staples and Griffin, two women she says inspired her to create this new roots album that features guest appearances by Allison Moorer, John Medeski and Little Feat’s Bill Payne. Her father is also on three of the tracks. Parts of the album were re-recorded after she began touring with her band and built her confidence. She co-wrote some of the songs with her Midnight Ramble bandmate Byron Isaacs and covered Mary Gauthier’s ‘Gentling Me.”
“It felt like I was going through a real storm with so many things changing in my life,” she says. “That’s one reason I changed some of it. I wanted it to reflect honestly, to do my best as an artist.”
The tour with Staples and Griffin has underscored her belief that Didn’t It Rain is just the beginning of her solo artistic process.
“I am really just beginning my journey as a songwriter,” she says. “In a way I was jumping in blind, and now that I’m beginning to talk about the record and what the record has been, I realize the truest pieces of it came together. It’s so interesting to me to see how you left yourself be vulnerable and personal [in songs]…It’s incredible to watch Patty and Mavis, artists of their level standing completely inside themselves, knowing exactly who they are and what they want to say…I’m just every excited to grow in that direction.”