Levon Helm: Dirt Farmer


Dirt Farmer is Levon Helm’s first solo studio recording in a quarter of a century and  the debut album on his own label.   An outgrowth of informal sessions in his Woodstock barn studio, (which he rebuilt after near destruction by fire), its music flows with all the ease and grace with which Levon sings. Meanwhile, musicians including multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell and Helm’s daughter Amy (co-producers of the project) imbue the music with warmth and an inviting informality.

Showing virtually no vestiges of the throat cancer that temporarily robbed him of his voice, Levon’s voice resonates with the salty humor and hard-earned compassion the likes of which he displayed with Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawks before they morphed into Bob Dylan’s backup group, and ultimately, The Band. Helm also sits at the drums and contributes acoustic guitar to a thirteen-song set of material mixing traditional tunes favored by his parents (to who this album is dedicated) and contemporary originals such a Steve Earle’s  “The Mountain.”

Keyboards modernize the sound at various intervals, but violin dominates the arrangements, giving the music a prevailing feel of bluegrass. The prominence of acoustic instruments also reveals the roots of songs such as J.B. Lenoir’s jaunty “Feelin’ Good” and J.P. Carter’s “Single Girl Married Girl,” illustrating the intersection of country and blues music. Harmony vocals supplied by Teresa Williams, Campbell’s wife, add an authentic element of gospel to “A Train Robbery.”

It’s probably no coincidence though, that the best tune on Dirt Farmer also elicits the best performance from Levon Helm and his accompanists. An original Buddy and Julie Miller, “Wide River to Cross” sums up the frontman’s attitude toward his past (much as the melody encapsules the styles of the album) but most importantly his faith in what the future can promise, especially noteworthy given the challenges he’s recently faced.

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