Levon Helm, iconic drummer and singer in The Band, is back with a miracle of an album. I don't think that's an exaggeration, and Helm would surely agree, as his liner notes attest. Helm almost lost his life to throat cancer a few years back. He most assuredly lost his voice. So the fact that he is singing at all is significant. The fact that he is singing this well is almost mind-boggling. The man is 67 years old, has been to hell and back, and he sounds as great as he did on "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." The timbre has changed a bit (he's more Ralph Stanley caterwaul these days), but there's the same masterful phrasing. And he digs down deep into the loamy dirt.
Listening to Dirt Farmer, Helm's first solo album in 25 years, it occurred to me that this is the album he's been waiting to make all his life. Levon's always had that hardscrabble southern grit and soulfulness that seems to be bred in the soil of Helena, Arkansas, his native town. Here he employs it on thirteen songs, many of them from his childhood. The Carter Family is represented here, and Steve Earle, and Buddy and Julie Miller. There's an old blues tune from J.B. Lenoir, and a half dozen tracks from the ubiquitous "Trad." Frequent Dylan sideman Larry Campbell produces and plays guitars and fiddles, Levon plays mandolin and drums and sings, and daughter Amy from Ollabelle adds some exquisite harmonies that help to soften dad's feral howl. It's great stuff, raw but very accessible, and it makes me want to revisit every note the man has ever sung. He's a national (okay, for your Canadians who want to claim him, an international) treasure, and we should sing his praises while we've still got him.