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Author: Subject: Levon Helm - Old Dirt Farmer

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  posted on 12/7/2007 at 05:07 PM

An American original gets his voice back
Story Highlights
Levon Helm has a new album out, "Dirt Farmer"

Helm had cancer, treatments robbed him of voice for many years

Former Band drummer-vocalist enjoyed jam sessions, got "chops back"

NEW YORK (AP) -- The voice is raspy but recognizable, reminiscent of a time when he played with a band so amazingly good they were simply known as The Band.

That was more than three decades ago, before the throat cancer and the surgery and the radiation left Levon Helm with no voice at all. The singer on classics like "Up On Cripple Creek" and "Rag Mama Rag" was resigned to resuming his musical life as strictly a sideman -- a little drums, or strumming the mandolin.

"My dream was to have (daughter) Amy make an album, and I'd play some drums and still get to ride on the tour bus," Helms says by phone from his home in Woodstock. "And then it finally got so I could sing harmony parts here and there, if the key was right, and the melody would accommodate it."

It wasn't until eight years after his cancer surgery, and after 28 radiation treatments, that Helm considered the possibility of singing on his own album. "Dirt Farmer" features his familiar voice on tracks like Steve Earle's "The Mountain" and a variety of traditional tunes first heard on his boyhood back porch in Arkansas.

"My folks used to sing those songs to each other when they were kids," Helm said of songs like "The Girl I Left Behind" and "The Blind Child." The songs were passed down to the next generation, and Helm passed them along to his daughter, Amy.

The result, beginning with recording sessions that started in spring 2005, was Helm's first solo studio album in 25 years. He dedicated "Dirt Farmer" to his parents, and started making the record as a collection of duets with his daughter.

At the same time, Helm was hosting his monthly "Midnight Ramble Sessions," a concert series that brought in musical friends Donald Fagen, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint and Emmylou Harris to the barn on his property.

The shows helped pay his medical bills and cover reconstruction costs for his home studio, which was destroyed in a fire. Helm had built the studio and settled in Woodstock in 1975.

"The 'Rambles' started out mainly as a rent party kind of a deal," Helm says. "All my friends getting together, playing a show, and paying the rent for me. But the 'Rambles' quickly turned into the best way in the world to try and get some chops back."

As the sole proprietor of the venue, Helm was allowed to venture into more adventurous musical territory than if he'd gone on tour: "Some club owner saying, 'You guys are great, but we need to hear more of the old stuff.' "

The sessions led to the record, although it wasn't easy going. Some days, Helm and the band assembled by one-time Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell might go for hours. And other days, they might just go home early.

"You know, it just depended on energy levels," Helm says. "Sometimes it would get real good, we'd get enthused, and give it a good honest day. Other times, when the voice started to go south, we'd pull back a little."

The image of Helm pulling back remains incongruous compared to images of his driving drum work from "The Last Waltz," or his eager vocals from any of The Band's albums. Two of his old bandmates are now dead: Richard Manuel committed suicide, and Rick Danko died shortly after Helm's cancer diagnosis.

The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

Helm, now 67, was so buoyed by making new music that he's already looking forward to a follow-up album.

"We've got another 12 or 15 songs, most of 'em are pretty good," Helm said. "It is a wonderful thing that's happened to us."

Helm has an explanation for all the unexpected good news lately: "The power of prayer and music."

And he's hopeful of doing some live shows with the new album, something that seemed impossible when his voice disappeared.

"Well, it depends on the tickets, you know?" Helm says, his voice now self-deprecating. "If we can sell some of those tickets, I wouldn't mind driving down to Philadelphia. But we haven't made any plans yet."

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..brought in musical friends Donald Fagen, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint and Emmylou Harris to the barn on his property.

Now that's a party!


 

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Zen Peach



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  posted on 12/7/2007 at 05:18 PM
Great article, Jeanne! Wish I could make it out to his place in Woodstock for one of those jam sessions sometime! How much fun would that be??? Gotta love Levon.
(hope Effie sees this article)

 

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  posted on 12/7/2007 at 05:25 PM
Levon Helm = The most underrated drummer/vocalists in music. By far one of my favorite drummers.

 

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  posted on 12/7/2007 at 06:05 PM
I like all three Band vocalists, but Levon Helm's vocals were the most distinct, and most interesting. These are my favorite Levon vocals:

THE WEIGHT
UP ON CRIPPLE CREEK
THE NIGHT THEY DROVE OLD DIXIE DOWN
WS WALCOTT MEDICINE SHOW
SMOKE SIGNAL
WHEN I PAINT MY MASTERPIECE
GET UP JAKE

 

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  posted on 12/7/2007 at 06:12 PM
Amen to the power of prayer and music

Thanks for sharing.

Deep Tracks on XM have been playing a few tracks of his new one. From what I have heard it is good. Glad to have him back

 

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  posted on 12/7/2007 at 06:41 PM
Thanks Jeanne. That's great to see. I'll ask for that disc for Christmas. Now I've gone from having a Christmas gift idea- Sandmans book- to a Christmas list- Sandmans book and Levon's new album. I see Doyle Bramhall Sr has a new release out too. Anyone heard it yet, and, if so, how is it? Today Brofan told me that the Marshall Tucker people just put out a combo CD/DVD from the 1977 Pasaic, NJ show. (I hope I spelled that right) He found a copy in NC, but Best Buy and Circuit City here didn't have it or show it in their system yet.
 

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  posted on 12/7/2007 at 08:50 PM
Levon and his band played at Town Hall in NYC last Monday for Don Imus' first day back on the air. He also had Little Sammy Davis too. They sounded real good. Levon has appeared numerous times on the Imus program.
 

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  posted on 12/7/2007 at 09:33 PM
I picked this up about a month ago. Great album. My kids love it too.

I saw him last March at the Beacon and it was one of the best shows I've seen. Allen Toussant and Warren sat in for a few songs. Levon's band is outstanding. I love that he has that big band sound with the horns. Larry Campbell and Jimmy Vivino on the guitars are fantastic. Levon was so gracious too for the reception he was getting from the fans. He seems like a very decent person.

I just bought tickets today to see him March 7 next year at the Beacon. I highly recommend you see him. He is also playing March 8.

[Edited on 12/8/2007 by jim]

 

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  posted on 12/7/2007 at 09:36 PM
I'm playing the new album as I type this....love Levon!

 

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  posted on 12/7/2007 at 10:49 PM
I just picked up a decent seat at the Beacon for the Levon Helm Band's March shows. They went on sale today at Ticketmaster. They are a little pricey but last year the shows were great, so I expect the same and I expect that they will sell out soon so get yourself some tickets if you want to go.

Ang

 

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  posted on 12/28/2007 at 04:50 PM
I bought this when it was first released and it has grown on me to a point where I listen to this cd daily , I love it , way to go Levon .

 

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  posted on 12/28/2007 at 05:07 PM
It's great to hear him singing again-didn't think it was even possible a few years ago.

Going to have to check this out-had no idea he was recording.

 

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Extreme Peach



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  posted on 12/28/2007 at 05:27 PM
It's great to see this thread, thank you Jeanne...' planned on getting this as soon as I first heard of it...finally got it Christmas eve...It has been many a moons since I've spinned a "store bought" disc this much in this short of time......."refreshing and pure"...

browse around this..


http://levonhelm.com/

 

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  posted on 12/29/2007 at 09:51 AM
this is an historic & brilliant album--well deserved Grammy nomination

looking forward to the 2 march shows at beacon....

 

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  posted on 12/29/2007 at 02:35 PM
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vA5YuDrmPUY
 

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  posted on 12/29/2007 at 02:54 PM
This CD is on my wish list...

 

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