By Happy Traum
It is fitting that the titles of Levon Helm’s two recent solo CDs share a word that defines the essence of his music. Both Dirt Farmer and his just-released Electric Dirt give a listener the undeniable sense that his music comes straight out of the American soil. “My interpretation of Levon’s musical being is that it comes out of the woods, the dirt, the mountains,” says Levon’s producer and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell. “It doesn’t come out of bricks and mortar or a Hollywood script. There’s nothing manufactured about it. And from the producing side of this thing, you have to take what a person is naturally and really let that live.” Helm’s earthy tenor, with its Arkansas twang and richly expressive, rough-hewn Southern phrasing, permeates every song on these two albums.
Dirt Farmer, his 2007 Grammy-winning CD, signaled Helm’s near-miraculous comeback after radiation for throat cancer seriously compromised his vocal cords for several years. With the help and encouragement of his daughter (and vocalist in Ollabelle), Amy, along with Larry Campbell and numerous friends and musical colleagues, Helm virtually reinvented himself, incrementally building his strength and musical chops until, once again, he found the voice that thrilled millions on “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Ophelia,” and dozens of other iconic songs from the Band’s repertoire.
Electric Dirt adds new textures and layers to the prevailing country fiddle and mandolin sounds of Dirt Farmer, bringing electric guitar, horns, and keyboard parts to the arrangements. The songs range in style from country rock (“Tennessee Jed” from the Grateful Dead) to gospel (“Move Along Train” from the Staples Singers); bluegrass (“White Dove” from the Stanley Brothers) to New Orleans (“Kingfish” by Randy Newman). Perhaps the most powerful song on the CD is a Helm/Campbell original, “Growing Trade,” about a hardscrabble farmer who can’t make a living selling his traditional crops and has to go into an illegal form of agriculture. And, to my immense gratification, one of the songs is my own ballad, “Golden Bird.” Throughout the album, Helm’s funky rhythm mandolin and his killer drum grooves drive the beat while at the same time laying back just enough to settle in like an old rocking chair.
Underlying all of this is Larry Campbell’s superb production. His arrangements, as he tells me, start with the acoustic guitar, in keeping with his folk/country aesthetic. A native New Yorker with almost uncanny musical talent and versatility, Campbell started playing guitar as a pre-teen, gradually adding just about every other stringed instrument to his bag of tricks. (He’s highly accomplished on acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and pedal steel.) These musical skills, along with a keen ear for nuance, have served many a headliner well when adding Larry to the band: Phil Lesh, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash and many others have benefitted from his skill and musicianship. His 8-year stint as a key member of Bob Dylan’s “Never Ending Tour” added to his reputation as a great utility player, and after leaving that gig he became Levon’s record producer and de facto musical director for the Rambles. This role has allowed Larry to step out, showcasing his frontman skills and performing duets with his wife, singer/guitarist Teresa Williams, who is also an integral part of the Rambles show.
For the past 40 years or so Levon Helm has lived in the small Catskill Mountains town of Woodstock, New York, bringing to this Northern artist colony his love of Southern country life and deep sense of community. His legendary “Midnight Rambles” have become the town’s musical centerpiece, bringing locals and music lovers from around the world to his barn-like studio hidden deep in the woods. The music that emanates from the high-ceilinged, post-and-beam structure most Saturday nights is as powerful a representation of American roots, blues, ballads, and old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll as you’ll find anywhere. With a supporting cast of world-class players and “special guests” dropping in (Dr. John, Phoebe Snow, Hubert Sumlin, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint, Donald Fagen, Norah Jones and many others have made appearances), the Rambles create an almost overpowering musical experience for listeners lucky enough to get in. A grateful populace actually created a special “Levon Helm Day” a couple of years ago, complete with a scroll, speeches by local politicians, and a town-wide party—followed, of course, by a Levon Helm concert.
My friendship with Levon Helm dates from our first meeting. It was Thanksgiving, 1968, at Bob Dylan’s home on the mountain above Woodstock, NY in the heart of the historic Byrdcliffe artist colony. Sara [Bob’s then-wife] had mentioned that “The Boys” would be coming over, and some time later there was a knock at the door and in walked five guys looking like they had just stepped out of 19th Century daguerrotype. Broad-brimmed hats, string ties, beards, work boots - the iconic look that later distinguished the Band from all the tie-dyed, psychedelic, hippie rock ‘n’ roll fashions of the day. These guys looked like they were of the earth. They were new in town, but as Bob’s backup band there was certainly a buzz about them, and their mysterious other-worldliness was intriguing and a little intimidating at first. What totally broke the ice was when Richard Manuel sat down at the piano and the other guys gathered around for an impromptu rendition of “I Shall Be Released.” It was the first time I had heard the song (I recorded it with Bob a few years later), and this rendition has been indelibly burned into my memory.
Forty-one years and innumerable musical and social encounters later, and shortly before the release of Electric Dirt, I met with Levon and Larry (a close friend whom I have known and played with since the late ‘70s) in Helm’s “back room,” just behind the huge stone fireplace in the studio/barn where the Midnight Rambles take place and where he has recorded his last two albums. Our conversation covered the making of Electric Dirt and their attitude about the music they have been creating.
Even though “Electric Dirt” has a more hard-driving sound than “Dirt Farmer,” with a wider spectrum of instruments, including electric guitars and keyboards, it has managed to retain a uniquely acoustic feel to its underlying structure. How was this accomplished?
HELM I think a lot of our sound has to do with the instrumentation. You know, we use mandolins and acoustic guitars and Dobros and things, so a lot of our music has an acoustic quality. We use a stand-up bass 99 percent of the time, and that gives us that acoustic sound. It doesn’t have that roar, that drone that an electric bass gives. And it might be age, too [Laughs].
And your Arkansas background.
HELM That is still what butters our bread. It’s that quality sound. There’s no electronics that give it a trickery, there’s nothing but that pure, God-given tone. It’s irresistible to me.
CAMPBELL Even if we use electric instruments—guitars and keyboards—it’s basically about keeping a pure, unadulterated sound. Just plug it into the amp and play, which in our way is sort of an acoustic thing. When we did the Dirt Farmer record Amy [Helm] and I agreed that we should find the “root” of Levon Helm. We just kept it narrow on the acoustic side, because that’s as close to where he came from as we could get. We’ve expanded on that on Electric Dirt.
Speaking of Amy, there is something special about the family connection when you two sing together.
HELM It’s one of the best things that ever happened to me. That feeling you get from playing with the young kids—especially your own—I think that’s a whole lot of it. Over the five years, I think we’ve all grown together. With Larry, and the sound that Amy and [guitarist and vocalist] Teresa [Williams] have been able to invent with their two voices. They’re the most different background singers you’ll ever hear, but they really cover whatever flavor we’re in, and really add that color or tone to it. So, the band has kind of grown into itself. Everybody has their own band on the side and then we all come together to form a unit. It’s a wonderful thing.
CAMPBELL The whole thing feels like family. Teresa came from rural Tennessee and she says all the time how this is like getting to sing with your uncles and your grandparents, mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers. We’re doing this for a living but we really love getting together and making music. Amy grew up listening to Levon play and she completely absorbed all of that and has a healthy respect for where he came from. Her own musical personality is fluent with the soul and R&B side of what Levon does, whereas Teresa, in her musical experience, is really fluent in the country, folk, and bluegrass side of things.
HELM That’s what I hear when they sing together! I hear all the way from blues, gospel, bluegrass.
It’s also a blessing that as a young kid Amy didn’t go off in some rebellious musical direction.
HELM Classical! [Laughs.]
It really shows her love and respect for you because she’s the next generation continuing your tradition. She’s playing mandolin, right?
CAMPBELL And drums! [She plays] the groove of death, and that comes straight from him.
Levon’s country drumming is right up front on Electric Dirt. Who else is on it?
CAMPBELL We started with basically the same group as the Dirt Farmer record, which was Levon, Teresa, Amy, and me; Byron Isaacs [from Ollabelle, on bass], then Brian Mitchell, the keyboard player. We got Jimmy Vivino to play [guitar] on couple of tunes, too. He’s doing the double guitar solo with me on “Move Along Train.”
And then we wanted to get horns on some of these tunes. The beauty of this horn section, like with those Band records, is that what Levon does is not a jazz gig, it’s not R&B, it’s not swing. It’s something in between. A horn section has to have a unique personality playing this stuff. It’s got to sound as organic and acoustic as everything else that’s going on. If it was just a standard blues or R&B horn section it wouldn’t be right. It has to have some of that Salvation Army in it, some of that New Orleans thing.
HELM We had Allen Toussaint helping us with some of the horn arrangements, too. He was looking over our shoulders on a couple of those ideas.
He also contributed to some of the Band tracks: “Life Is a Carnival,” “Ophelia,” and others, right?
HELM Yes, that’s when we first got hold of him. There wasn’t anybody else who could fit us like Allen. He’s one of the best we got, the smartest guy there.
When you’re coming up with the arrangements do you work with the guitar?
CAMPBELL Yes, all rhythm tracks start with the acoustic guitar. It’s Levon, myself, and Byron—acoustic guitar, drums, and bass. And let me tell you, playing an acoustic guitar with Levon, there’s nothing like it. Just locking into his groove is the coolest place you’d ever want to be. We get a good solid rhythm track and I’ve got nothing to worry about as far as where the arrangement’s going to go from there. For instance, on “I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free” I didn’t know what the horns were going to do, but I put this melodic acoustic guitar intro on there that I thought would sound great with the horn section, and we took it from there.
HELM And everybody can help out, you know. Brian Mitchell can play something, the horn players, Amy and Teresa—you know they’re going to do something different on their parts.
CAMPBELL I approached these tunes as—if they end up just being acoustic guitar, that’s fine. If electric guitar can fit on top of it that’s great too. It’s just my perception of Levon’s thing. Those great Band records, at the bottom of it, it’s acoustic music. The first time I saw these guys was 1968 playing with Bob Dylan at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Woody Guthrie. I had never seen Bob before. There was Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Richie Havens, Arlo [Guthrie], all doing great stuff with just acoustic guitars. Then Bob comes on at the end with this band behind him and it just killed me, because for the first time I’m seeing guys with a great rock ’n’ roll attitude playing folk music! Robbie [Robertson] was playing an acoustic guitar with a pickup on it and it was just right.
HELM And Rick [Danko] was playing that fretless bass. When you think about it, that fretless bass really lent itself to the acoustic thing. We never really had that Fender bass sound.
CAMPBELL And that changed my life. At the time I was into all the bands you heard on the radio but right then I was starting to explore the old-time acoustic thing - the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, country, and bluegrass. And here are these guys doing basically rock ’n’ roll with all that stuff present. It was a feast for the ears, and seeing these guys do that legitimized everything I thought could happen. I’ve been pursuing that ever since.
HELM The only thing electrical that we ever did was something that [Band keyboardist] Garth [Hudson] would come up with. Some little electronic tweak that he would do, but he never got so far out that it dated the records. They sound like they could have been cut last year.
I think these two records, Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, are timeless too. Just looking at the list of people whose songs you did, aside from the ones you wrote, you’ve got the Stanley Brothers tune—about as roots as you can get.
CAMPBELL That version of “White Dove” to me is a blues tune, with that backbeat in there and the way he’s singing it—again, it’s that melding of two different styles, putting bluegrass and blues together and it becomes something of its own.
That’s the only waltz time tune on the album.
HELM But we still play it with a kind of 2/4 direction, you know, rather than that oompah-pah kind of place. So it doesn’t sound like waltz time, it just sounds slow.
CAMPBELL It’s a soul three.
HELM Staples Singers - that’s where we cut our teeth!
And then there are two Muddy Waters tunes on Electric Dirt: “Stuff You Gotta Watch” and “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had.”
HELM You know, the record is a lot like the Midnight Rambles. It wasn’t like we planned to have either one or two Muddy Waters songs, it’s just the way it turned out.
I have to ask you about “Golden Bird.” I couldn’t be more thrilled about that. How did you approach it?
HELM That song is one of my favorites on the album, it really is, and I gotta thank you for it. It sounds like a classic to me. We had it very stripped down, almost a cappella, and just built the verses as the song progressed. Everything is acoustic in it, we have the harmonium, the fiddles, cello, and right at the end, if you listen carefully, [you can hear that] Larry added an electric guitar in the middle of all that acoustic stuff, just to bring up the drone and give it more of a bagpipe effect, and it really did work. It adds as it goes and then after the instrumental part is where it gets a little bit more thick. I love the tune.
I wrote the song back in 1968 or 1969, sitting up in Byrdcliffe up on the mountain here, and I was thinking about the old tales in which a tragedy happens and the victim comes back to life in another form. In this case the bird, which the singer has killed, becomes a woman.
HELM We’ve all had that experience where you’ve destroyed something you love. My mom stopped me from doing that one time. I had a BB gun and I was taking aim, you know, and all of a sudden she comes up behind me and says, “You’re not gonna shoot that songbird, are you?” Yeah, we’ve all hurt things we should be loving.
CAMPBELL It’s like one of those classic old American folk songs, it’s universal.
HELM It could have come over from the old country.
CAMPBELL And when [Helm] sings it, it puts it right there.
Larry, what guitars are you playing these days?
CAMPBELL I play Martins, a D-28 or a D-18. The ones I use mostly are relatively new. I got them from the company when I was with Bob. They’re vintage reissue models, really well made. But on this record I use a couple of Gibsons, too, because for some rhythm track[s] nothing records like a Gibson. If you’re looking for that rhythm thing to occupy its own space [and] drive with the drums, the Gibson does that very well. I do own a Sobell, which I played on my solo record because that instrument’s got an incredible voice for solo acoustic fingerpicking. Teresa plays a Gibson Hummingbird that Levon gave her, and that’s a great guitar.
On both Dirt Farmer and this one I use the National (12-fret “O” Model, metal-body guitar) a lot, both with and without a slide. I got it about eight years ago from National when they started remaking the old round-neck models. I was looking for an old one but it’s hard to find a really good-sounding one that will stay in tune [and has] a straight neck. I went to the factory and checked this one out and it sounded as good as any of the older ones, and it had a truss rod which the old ones don’t. The beauty of those guitars is that it’s a metal body and what counts is how they make the cone in there. If that’s done well it sounds great. They’re doing it really well.
Do you keep the action low like a regular guitar or do you raise it for the slide?
CAMPBELL A little bit higher than normal.
HELM So you’ll still be able to fret it. I haven’t figured out a way to incorporate that live yet because it’s got a great sound when you plug it in but it loses that acoustic quality.
Those great acoustic instruments, with mandolin and everything, they really tune the drums. The cymbals and the drums all become more pitch-oriented, they make everything more tuneful. And the horns do that, too. The trumpets do a wonderful thing with those rivet cymbals—make ’em buzz just a little bit hotter.
Levon, you mostly play mandolin when you play a stringed instrument.
HELM Most of the time it’s a mandolin, but whether it’s a guitar or a mandolin, I’m playin’ it like a drum, I’m not doing much with it. I’m just following the basic rhythm patterns.
It’s nice when you step out front and play and sing with the mandolin.
HELM It is nice. I like to let Amy get over there and have a hit or two on the drums.
CAMPBELL Levon was playing some great mandolin on Muddy’s “Stuff You Gotta Watch” [sings a little riff]. That’s killer mandolin! And I guess I’m playing it on the other one, “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had.” Then we did ”That’s All Right,“ a Junior Parker tune that’s a bonus track that’s going to be used for something. Levon’s playing mandolin on that one, too. And Levon played mandolin on “Kingfish.” It almost sounds like an old-time tenor banjo.
What kinds of mandolins are you playing?
CAMPBELL We used my Gibson F-9 on the record, and Levon’s got a really nice Flatiron for playing live. That F-9 is like an F-5 without all the fancy stuff on it and it’s really nice. When Amy plays the mandolin she plays whatever’s up there.
So you guys are going to hit the road pretty soon and do a few gigs?
HELM Yes, we’re going to get to play with John Prine in Atlanta and Red Rocks. He came to a Ramble here a couple of weeks ago—boy, he sounds great! One of the best we got. We’re playing some theaters and festivals, and we’re playing Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa. Yeah, they still got Cain’s Ballroom. Everything didn’t go to hell in a handbasket! AG
[SIDEBAR] What They Play
Acoustic Guitars: Martin D-18 Vintage reissue; D-28 Herringbone from the ‘90s; A new Gibson Jumbo belonging to Levon that he uses for a min-range rhythm sound; Late ‘90s Joe Dinkins (Abingdon, VA) handmade guitar with a big sound hole, modeled after Clarence White’s D-28
Amplification: “Fishman Matrix pickups on everything”
Strings: D’Addario Phosphor Bronze lights; Medium gauge on the National
Capos: Shubb or Planet Wave
Picks: Dunlop medium thumbpicks; Flatpicks “whatever’s around and handy.”
Mandolins: Gibson F-9 c. 2002