In the late 1990s, Levon Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer. The radiation treatments reduced his once powerful voice to a mere rasp. Unable to make any money touring or recording, the medical and other bills piled up. For a time, it looked like his beloved home in Woodstock, NY would face foreclosure. That was the impetus for the creation of the now famous Midnight Ramble in early 2004. The Ramble takes place in the studio attached to Levon’s house every Saturday night that Levon is in town. Having had the pleasure of attending the Ramble, I can report that it is one of the most amazing musical events that you will ever attend. The money brought in from ticket sales for these and other shows allowed Levon to keep the wolves from the door.
In 2007, with his voice 80% restored by his estimate, Levon released his Grammy Award-winning comeback album, Dirt Farmer. Now he’s back with a brand-new album entitled Electric Dirt (Dirt Farmer Music/Vanguard Records). I’m happy to tell you that the new album is the closest thing to an album by the Band since, well, since the last Band album. Levon’s voice is certainly an American treasure and he belongs in the company of great roots singers like Charlie Louvin, Ralph Stanley, and Buddy Miller.
It’s no accident that the word “dirt” appears in the title of both of Levon’s most recent albums. The music here, produced by multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, is as rich as the earth beneath an Arkansas farmer’s feet, and as authentic as the sky above his head. The album is a pitch-perfect blend of gospel, blues, rock, and country, played by real people, on real instruments.
There are a number of fine songs here, but by far the standout and one of the best songs of 2009, “Growing Trade,” is the sad tale of a failing farmer who has had to convert his fields to grow a somewhat less legal crop. The song was written by Helm and Campbell, and ranks with the best of the Band tracks. The album opens with a rousing cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed,” and also includes a fine take on Randy Newman’s “Kingfish.” Done in the proper and powerful New Orleans style, with horns arranged by Allen Toussaint, “Kingfish” sounds like a song that Levon was born to sing. There’s a lovely duet between Levon and his daughter Amy on the gospel-tinged “Heaven’s Pearls,” which Amy co-wrote, and the album ends with an upbeat version of the civil rights anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to tire of the hushed sounds of young bands accompanied by softly strummed guitars and orchestral textures. Sometimes I just need a dose of the real deal. If you’re like me, Electric Dirt may be just what you’ve been looking for.