In my limited experience with The Band, Levon Helm has always been my favourite member. Usually on drum duties, he plays in such a unique way, that his beats sound like guitar riffs. Little, subtle fills and extra hits mean he’s always doing more than just keeping time, but he’s never showy or overpowering. But it’s on the mic that Helm really delivers. His voice has a seen it all gravelness to it, his southern drawl brings immediate gravitas, and he can make any story seem lived in and real.
When he released Dirt Farmer in 2007, I don’t think I had any clue who he was. But I remember it being a big deal that one of the members of The Band had released his first album in a long, long time. And that it was universally praised. A few years later, I watched The Last Waltz, discovered The Band and discovered that Helm delivered their best bits. So when I decided it was time to delve deeper into Helm-ville, Dirt Farmer seemed like the obvious a place to start.
This is some mountain man, down in the holler stuff. False Hearted Love Blues and Poor Old Dirt Farmer are all fiddles, squeeze boxes and lose drums. And that’s the perfect match for Helms’ voice, now even more seen it all and lived in. He could be singing about the Hatfields taking on the McCoy’s and I’d believe he was there to see it in person in 1863.
Speaking of mountain men, The Mountain is the tale of a man born long ago, the titular mountain he was born on, the decades of mining that have taken everything it can give, and his declaration to die there too. It’s the kind of thing that could so easily sound hokey or corny if almost anyone else was singing it. But Levon Helm pulls it off effortlessly.
After the opening five songs that all sound like their straight out of Kentucky, Calvary has more of an Alabama blues vibe. The instruments used to make this song are the same as those that came before, but Calvary sounds more soaked in humid sweat. Then, what I thought was already a pretty stripped back record, Dirt Farmer delivers Anna Lee, nothing but Helm, Laurelyn Dossert on backing vocals and lamentful fiddle.
I can’t think of many albums that are so completely a throwback to years gone by, but still sound totally fresh and vibrant. Levon Helm was almost 70 when he made Dirt Farmer, and would die just five years later. And the sound of this record is the sound of someone obviously in their later years but still vital and full of life. It’s the sound of looking back, but also the sound of still having plenty to offer. And it just made the gap even bigger between my appreciation for Levon Helm, and my appreciation for every other immensely talented performer and song writer in The Band.