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Levon Helm overcomes adversity on “Dirt Farmer”

Jimmy Costa | Monday, January 28, 2008

In 1998, Levon Helm lay in a hospital bed. Stricken by throat cancer, he underwent a torturous regimen of treatments, including chemotherapy and surgery, to beat the disease before it could kill him.

He survived, but it was feared that the old lead singer of The Band would never sing again. Yet last year, the Holmes Brothers released a record featuring Levon and daughter Amy singing on one track. This was a welcome surprise to those who thought the elder Helm’s career was dead. While the voice was a bit thin and coarser than it’d ever been, it maintained its integral character and affecting depth that defined Helm throughout his career.

“Dirt Farmer” is Levon’s first record since being diagnosed with cancer. Mainly comprised of cover songs, the disc is a powerful demonstration of homage to his parents, who taught him how to use music to grasp beauty and solace in life’s most difficult and broken experiences.

The record is also a stirring offer of gratitude and appreciation to the music that he grew up with and is now blessed to play again so many decades later. Indeed, the songs seem to come straight from the back porches and roadhouses of the Arkansas that Helm knew as a child – with his coarse, old, sweet voice now filling the spaces left for him by the lives of his parents and neighbors many years ago.

A poignant and tender mix of traditional southern backcountry songs including the traditional “Blind Child,” the Stanley Brothers standard “False-Hearted Lover Blues” and A.P. Carter’s cheeky “Single Girl, Married Girl,” the record gives them all new arrangements. These arrangements allow a fresh take on timeworn tunes, giving the listener a lesson on the roots of American music while creating a sound that is entirely contemporary and relevant in today’s music scene.

To support the cover songs are a few original songs written by various friends which fit into the overall sound and feel of the disc. If there was ever any doubt about where The Band’s Americana roots came from, a listen to this disc will dispel them. The roots of this record run deeper into the soil of rural America than any old oak in the Appalachians.

Helm has always had an incredibly expressive voice, and on “Dirt Farmer” that comes to forefront. While his voice cannot carry the way it did on some of The Band’s best songs, Helm uses it more emotively than he ever did in his pre-cancer days.

Maybe it’s a compensation for his lack of volume, but he’s now trusting in its ability to carry a song. It is simply Helm at his best, singing wonderfully swaggering renditions of emotionally powerful songs by one of the most distinctive voices in popular music.

There is an inherent honesty to his voice that ensures songs a sense of authenticity that would have likely been lost had anyone but Helm been singing.

For instance, the title track, which features Levon singing of the trials and misfortunes of a sharecropper who cannot harvest anything from the ground except stones and dirt, actually sounds like the singer has shared in the life of the farmer.

Helm’s drawling howl is heavy with the outrage and sorrow of someone with a deep connection to the land and those who live by it and the heartbreak of being unable to find a life in the ground that is meant to nourish and sustain.

The best part of “Dirt Farmer” is that, after a few listens, it is clear that it is not just a good album for a man recovering from throat cancer. Rather, it is a good album – period. He sings his songs with great care, with honesty and, most importantly, with brave love.