CD Review of Dirt Farmer by Levon Helm
Recommended if you like
Ralph Stanley, Del McCoury,
Bob Dylan
Label
Vanguard/Dirt Farmer
Levon Helm: Dirt Farmer

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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P
lease forgive Levon Helm if it’s been a quarter century since his last proper solo album – he’s had a lot going on in the near-decade since last appearing on record with the remnants of the Band. Since the group’s (sadly overlooked) 1998 swan song Jubilation, Helm has dealt with throat cancer, the death of his friend and former Band-mate Rick Danko, a devastating fire, and his third bankruptcy – so the simple fact that he’s recording at all is a minor miracle. Even if Dirt Farmer had turned out to be a complete dud, it’d still mark one of 2007’s most welcome returns.

Fortunately, it isn’t a dud, complete or otherwise. Matter of fact, it’s at least as good (if not better) than anything Helm has recorded apart from the Band – and if, in the end, it still doesn’t amount to much more than a patch on his stunning musical legacy, that’s only because of the heights he’s already scaled.

Produced by Dylan acolyte Larry Campbell and Levon’s daughter Amy Helm, Dirt Farmer is a decidedly back-to-basics affair; indeed, some tracks don’t even feature drums. A few years ago, a track without drums would have meant a track without Levon – even after overcoming throat cancer, he wasn’t sure he’d sing again – but as these songs make clear, rock’s preeminent singing drummer has regained his voice. It’s lost a bit of its edge, but that serves the material well – the bulk of the album is made up of traditional songs from Helm’s youth. Tunes such as “False Hearted Lover Blues” and (the de facto title track) “Poor Old Dirt Farmer” don’t call for a velvety croon; they need a warped and thorny holler to get their points across, and Helm’s worn-ragged vocals do the trick nicely. It doesn’t hurt that he’s surrounded by sympathetic players like Campbell, Byron Isaacs, Buddy and Julie Miller, and his daughter Amy, whose talents might be more familiar to younger listeners within the context of her roots-gospel outfit, Ollabelle. This is a record that breathes with the kind of sonic space that’s sadly foreign to most modern releases – with its plentiful helpings of fiddle, accordion, mandolin, and pump organ, it hearkens strongly back to the classic albums Helm cut with the Band.

Those days are done, of course, and if it sounded like Helm was simply aping that form while performing none of its function – as he’s been wont to do on earlier solo outings – then Dirt Farmer would be nothing more than a sad echo. But as much as it’s tempting to write this album off as a creative holding pattern, it made sense for Helm to retrench himself artistically with a backwards-looking set; in reaching back to his childhood, he’s reaffirming his right to be here now. In a year that has seen Tom Petty feted with a four-hour documentary, Bob Dylan given the lush compilation treatment, and terrific reviews for Springsteen’s Magic, a new Levon Helm album deserves to have just as many critical palm fronds thrown its way. Is this a major artistic statement? No – but Helm is an American treasure, and we need to make sure he keeps coming back for more. Keep this one in mind when it comes time to cast your ballots, Grammy voters.

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