Ramble On

Levon Helm

February 2008 / Chronogram

It’s the smile. That’s what really gets you. Almost as much as the incredible songs. Or the fluid, flawless musicianship. Or even the coarse, honey-ladled grit of the voice. The smile is wide, full, bright. It floods the big, log-walled room with pure, dazzling luminescence, like a signal that the angels are about to appear from on high. And the smile is contagious, finding itself mirrored across the faces of everyone else in the space—the audience, the musicians, even the scrambling, focused soundmen.

The smile belongs to Levon Helm, one of this country’s most precious cultural treasures, who tonight at one of the Midnight Ramble sessions that take place a few times a month at the erstwhile Band member’s Woodstock home and studio is doing exactly what he was put—and kept—on this Earth to do: make great American music. Some of the greatest American music that ever was, in fact. And anyone who knows about the difficult life valleys Helm, 68, has triumphed over in the last few years, and about the glorious heights he’s now experiencing through his career’s ongoing renaissance, can’t help but be awed by the deep portent of the man’s seemingly insurmountable grin. Which probably just makes them smile all the more themselves, really.

“Well, sir, when you have everything taken away, you’re just so glad to get it back. Which is what I’ve been so very fortunate enough to do,” says the humble but hearty native Arkansan. “It just makes playing so much more joyful. Every opportunity to play just means so much more than the last one.”

Helm’s years with The Band are well chronicled elsewhere, perhaps no better than in his 1993 autobiography This Wheel’s on Fire. In the book he talks about the lean vagabond times of the group’s early period, when the members were “living the music.” But since those days, his life has echoed the music in other, more catastrophic ways, ways that recall the tragedy-laced folk ballads of his Southern youth.

The first blow came in 1986, 10 years after The Band’s demise, when Helm’s good friend and band mate, pianist Richard Manuel, took his own life. Next, in 1991, a fire at the beloved “barn” studio Helm had built in 1976 burned the structure almost to the ground. And when Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1996 it looked as though, if the disease didn’t kill him, the voice of the man who sang lead and played drums and mandolin on “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Rag Mama Rag,” and other classics would be silenced forever. But the heartbreak didn’t end there: In 1999, Band bassist Rick Danko passed away at the age of 56. With limited funds thanks largely to unfairly structured royalty deals and unable to do the film and voiceover work that had helped to pay the bills, Helm found himself in the precarious position of having to balance the costs of rebuilding his home and workplace with those of the medications and procedures needed to save his voice—and his life.

Understandably, he chose to put most of his available cash into the latter. And, after surgery and 28 intensive radiation treatments at Sloan-Kettering in Manhattan, not only has Helm beaten the cancer, but his voice has regained “about 70 percent” of its famed knotty-pine majesty. “It still might take a notion to go south on me some nights, but it’s getting better than it was,” he says. When told that in some ways he sounds even better than he does on some of his older records, that even Tom Waits might be happy to have the same level of gruff character in his voice, the singer laughs. “Yeah, well on some gigs I wish mine had a little less character, thank you!”

But with Helm’s health back in the fold, there was still the mortgage company to satisfy. While in recovery mode he needed to get his voice back in shape and pay down his debts, but touring was out of the question. So instead of taking the show to the fans, he took a stroke of inspiration from the freewheeling rent parties of his childhood and invited the fans to come hang out at his house. Since 2004, Helm has opened part of his home to the public for the now famous and intimate “parlor sessions” known as his Midnight Rambles. Facilitated by a large crew that calls itself Team Levon, the medicine showlike events sell out weeks in advance and have featured surprise guest appearances by Dr. John, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Medeski, Martin, and Wood, Nick Lowe, Allen Toussaint, and others.

Tonight, however, before Helm gets to do all of his pickin’, poundin’, and grinnin’, before he and his band—singer-guitarists Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, bassist Michael Merritt, horn men Steven Bernstein, Jay Collins, and Erik Lawrence, keyboardist Brian Mitchell, and Helm’s daughter, Olabelle vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Amy Helm, as well as a cast of guest players—are ready to Ramble, there’s quite a bit of behind-the-scenes lead-up action that goes on. Two hours earlier, after following the long and winding driveway to the studio and being checked in at the gate, one enters the downstairs reception area, which is populated by staff members wearing sweatshirts bearing the legend HELMLAND SECURITY over crossed drumsticks. At the merch booth, CDs, DVDs, T-shirts, and other items are laid out, while nearby tables are stocked with free snacks and beverages, which will be generously amended to by the many arriving Ramble-goers who bring store-bought and homemade food to share. From here, it’s a straight zip through a short hallway lined with framed photos, posters, and newspaper and magazine articles and up the stairs into the main studio.

Despite the rows of folding chairs and the preponderance of instruments and sound gear set up in the stage area at the opposite end, the space feels more like a massive living room than a recording studio, thanks to its high ceiling and tall stone hearth. It’s the perfect setting for the music of Helm’s band, a rich, earthy blend of the best elements of rhythm and blues, country, soul, jazz, gospel, and rock ’n’ roll. The heartbreaking harmonies of Williams, Amy Helm, and frequent Bob Dylan side man Campbell are moving enough, but watching the leader belt out the leads and drive it all with such unbounded zeal is the real joy, bringing to mind the words of Ronnie Hawkins, Helm’s pre-Band leader in rockabilly legends Ronnie and the Hawks: “Levon played more drums with less licks than any drummer in the world. And he could make it sound right.” It sure sounds right tonight. Really, it’s safe to say that music just doesn’t get any better. “Just being around Levon elicits your truest self, musically and otherwise,” says Williams. “He’s so utterly sincere, he just makes everybody feel like they’re the only person in the room.”

And despite the magnitude of the operation, the big guest stars, and the packed houses, Helm and company still manage to keep it all down-home at the sessions. “No matter how big things get, we never want the Ramble to turn into some big, impersonal machine,” says Helm’s manager, Barbara O’Brien, who oversees the events and works for the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office by day. “The Ramble is an extension of Levon [himself], and we try to never lose sight of that.”

From out of the Ramble sessions has come the shockingly great Dirt Farmer (Vanguard Records), Helm’s first solo studio album in 25 years. Produced by Campbell and Amy Helm, the record is dedicated to Helm’s parents and marks a return to the old-time tunes they raised him on. “Tough times can make you more reflective, and make you long for better and simpler times,” says Helm. “So I guess that’s what led me back to those songs, which were already old when I heard them as a boy. I wanted to get back to the community feeling the music used to have.”

But no matter what tangents Helm’s music has taken over the years, it always boils down to the blues. So even though Dirt Farmer revisits country-folk chestnuts like the traditionals “The Girl I Left Behind,” “The Blind Child,” and the Carter Family’s “Single Girl, Married Girl,” a steady, undeniable blues feeling runs throughout. (And the down-and-dirty reading of J. B. Lenoir’s “Feelin’ Good,” with its refrain of “All the money in the world spent on feelin’ good,” must certainly hit home in light of the cost of prescription meds and radiation treatments.) “To me, the blues are the ABCs of music,” maintains Helm. “If you can play a Louis Jordan tune right, you can go on and play pretty much anything else from there.” Dirt Farmer has been nominated for a Grammy (for Best Traditional Folk Album), and, in a curious coincidence, The Band is being presented with a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement this month in Los Angeles.

Helm is also about to be a grandfather—for the second time in the space of just a few months. Not only is Amy due in March, but Muddy and Lucy, Helm’s beloved hounds, gave birth to a litter of eight pups in December. “We’d already had Muddy for about three years when I was down in Louisiana to shoot some scenes for The Electric Mist, a movie that Tommy Lee Jones is directing,” Helm recalls. “Lucy was a stray that the makeup girl found in the road, and when we brought her back to the set Muddy and her just really took a liking to each other.” In addition to the forthcoming The Electric Mist, Helm has acted in Jones’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) and in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), The Right Stuff (1983), Fire Down Below (1997), Feeling Minnesota (1996), and a full resume’s worth of other notable films.

Renewed health, a great new album, a new movie, newborn puppies, a grandchild and possible multiple Grammys on the way—it’s not hard to see why Helm is smiling as he’s being interviewed. But when he’s on stage, making that great, great music, the smile just seems to twinkle a little bit more. “It’s been said that music is the language of heaven,” Helm says. “And I believe that’s right.”

And tonight, under the bright, full moon and the warm, wooden eaves of Helm’s studio, one gets the strong feeling that someone in heaven is indeed listening. And smiling.