Dirt Farmer/Vanguard Music
By James Calemine
Turkey Scratch, Arkansas native, Levon Helm’s voice epitomizes the American music storyteller. Of course, Helm sang some of The Band’s most memorable songs such as “The Weight”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Rag Mama Rag”, “Up On Cripple Creek” and “Ophelia”. Helm still ranks as one of the world’s best drummers who played with Ronnie Hawkins, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Conway Twitty, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John and countless others.
Helm endured throat cancer surgery in 1998, and survived 28 radiation treatments to make this timeless CD. Dirt Farmer proves a classic collection of 13 songs. Helm wrote the liner notes for this album. He wrote the few years that followed his cancer situation were filled with “the power of prayer and kind wishes.”
Helm wrote he began singing with his daughter Amy who encouraged him to make a complete comeback. These tunes represent songs Helm learned from his musical family. Considering the circumstances, Dirt Farmer stands as the most important CD of the year, and the most enduring of any other Band member’s solo release. Amy Helm and Bob Dylan’s old guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell produced this record. Campbell emerges as the musical hero on Dirt Farmer. Campbell can play 14 different instruments and brings an authentic bluegrass, folk and country foundation to all these songs.
Dirt Farmer’s songs contain an undercurrent of divine sadness. These, mostly traditional, compositions are sung for the salt of the earth--supporting the underdog, the downtrodden and displaced. This album constructs a musical testament of what American music once represented--meaningful tunes sung by folks with real talent, vision and tragedy.
“False Hearted Lover Blues” opens the CD as a tribute to the Stanley Brothers. Outside of the impeccable sonic quality, these songs sound as if they could’ve been recorded in the 1930s or 1940s. “Poor Old Dirt Farmer” pays homage to the neglected farmer who feeds everyone. The sentiment reflects how the farmer’s own people overlook his constant hardship and eternal purpose.
Helm covers Steve Earle’s “The Mountain”, and calls Earle a “great American music maker.” Helm’s father taught him “Little Birds”, a song The Band used to cover. Larry Campbell’s fiddle-playing on this song will break your heart in certain slants of light or after the right amount of drinks. A powerful melancholy runs through Dirt Farmer. These songs are not filled with mean hubris, but graceful humility.
The swampy rendition of Byron Isaac’s “Calvary” contends with any song in the ‘blues’ category during the last 25 years. The layered subtle textures and musical embellishments on this album reveal deeper layers with each listen. Once again, Larry Campbell’s mournful fiddle casts a sad musical backdrop behind his wife, Teresa, and Amy Helm’s beautiful voices. These songs tell everlasting stories…containing messages that transcend skin and bone…
“Got Me a Woman”, a humorous story-song, conjures a homespun-backporch swing that reminds me of a luminous track from The Basement Tapes. No wonder Bob Dylan employed Larry Campbell, Campbell’s Resonator-guitar work on this track once again verifies his greatness.
The Paul Kennerly song, “A Train Robbery”, evokes cinematic images of Frank and Jesse James on cold steel rails, holding guns while a preacher tries to redeem flesh and spirit in the face of a cruel world amid the lines: “Some say the Devil had taken his soul/Some say his spirit survived/But we all know he was nothing/But a Missouri boy just fighting to stay alive.”
Helm mentioned in the liner notes The Carter Family’s “Single Girl, Married Girl” exists as one of his favorite songs. His musical painting of farm girls, dry soil and wayward days somehow make the heart ache.
Any song about a dying mother or a blind child can only be pulled off by a truly gifted storyteller or songwriter. The song “Blind Child” (one of the first songs his family taught him) rises as a redemptive story straight out of The Good Book. For a sad soul suffering personal tribulation this song may send you to your knees.
As one wipes the tears on his sleeve from the previous song, Helm’s version of J.B. Lenoir’s “Feelin’ Good” forces one to crack a smile in the knowing line: “All the money in the world spent on feelin’ good”, driving home the gravity of his talent. The final track on Dirt Farmer, Buddy & Julie Miller’s “Wide River To Cross” provides hope in the face of real doubt.
“There’s a sorrow in the wind
Blowin’ down the road I been
I can hear it cry
While the shadows steal the sun
But I cannot look back now
I’ve come too far to turn around
And there’s still a race
Ahead I must run.”
Considering Helm’s life, he’s one of few storytellers and musicians to trust. The earthy and wise Dirt Farmer will bring proverbial medicine to your weary soul.