Levon Helm: Dirt Farmer

[Vanguard Records]

Jan 2, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Robbie Robertson tried to self-eulogy a still-vital Band out of existence at the 1976 Last Waltz concert. The result was that the group, once it tried to carry on without him, was never taken seriously as a vital musical act again — despite the fact that it still had three of the best vocalists Rock had ever seen in Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and drummer Levon Helm. (Robertson's own solo albums, after a promising start, have suffered from his big ideas and poor voice.)

Death has since taken the first two, and Helm's voice was stilled by throat cancer for many years. But now, after radiation treatments and recovery, he's recorded Dirt Farmer, his first solo album in 25 years, with production support from his daughter Amy and Dylan sideman Larry Campbell. The twangy, bittersweet voice, obviously, isn't as full-throated as it once was, but it has a surprising amount of power, energy and coloration. And it's immediately recognizable as Helm.

The album is acoustic and redolent of the yearning, melancholy-tinged Folk/mountain music he heard growing up in Arkansas. Mandolins, dobros, violins, pump organ, accordion, piano and harmony vocals (including Amy's) predominate as he covers traditional material like "Poor Old Dirt Farmer," "The Blind Child" and "Little Birds" and newer songs in the same spirit as Laurelyn Dossett's "Anna Lee," Buddy and Julie Miller's "Wide River to Cross" and Steve Earle's "The Mountain."

It's like discovering Gillian Welch's long-lost father — appropriate for those who view The Band as the fathers of Americana. Helm is keeping the faith. Grade: A-