Feeling the Burn
After Amy Helm described touring during those proving-ground days as “the most harrowing thing I’d ever walked through,” she heard three little words from fellow singer-songwriter Joan Osborne that fit perfectly: “Baptism by fire.” And neither stage fright nor gigging professionally with her dad (after mending their once-fractured relationship) led to that traumatic condition.
“It was that the audience was gonna see me as one thing, right?” Helm shares. “There was no escaping it. You could take the kindest, most encouraging person in the world, even if they’re standing there watching you, they’re still seeing you as Levon’s daughter. So it’s walking out into a spotlight which is a projection on to you whether you like it or not. And combining that with being very young and naturally … I wasn’t seasoned and I wasn’t confident. And confidence, you’ll think that someone’s about 80 percent better than they were the last time if they get confident.
“It’s with anything that we do, whether it’s driving a tractor or singing a song or whatever it is that you’re trying to figure out how to do. So without that musculature built up in me, I was really not ready. But he thought I was ready, so he dragged me across the country (laughs) by his side under his wing and he made me get out there and do that every night, and it was the best thing in the world for me. It forced me to kind of get to a place where I had to decide if I loved doing this enough, did I believe in myself enough, because I sure as hell knew the audience didn’t believe in me enough yet. … That really set me on a course to choose music as a career and find my people and find my tribe of peers and get my reflection from them of who I was as an artist and where I was going.”
Prior to their road trips, Levon Helm already had battled drug addiction, then was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998. Medical bills began to mount after numerous drives with Amy for his appointments at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. If several tough years are hard to forget, at least now she can fondly remember those father-daughter cross-country excursions to play for his fans.
In a recent post on her Facebook page, Amy shared a photo of Levon driving when they toured together around 2000-2001, which read in part, “He was two years sober, had just filed bankruptcy, and was 1 year past his radiation treatments for throat cancer. His voice, ravaged from the radiation, was always hovering just above a whisper. He couldn’t sing a note but told me he was determined to be the best blues drummer there was. … He loaded his own drums in and out of the trunk of his half-broken-down car. … He walked out every night, facing small audiences that wanted to hear him sing Cripple Creek. He would whisper a few words to greet his fans, and then he would sit down and get to work. … He wasn’t ashamed he wasn’t afraid — he was just fiercely determined. It was like watching a force of nature.”
Like Father, Like Daughter
That kind of perseverance must have been another shared trait. Dealing with critical voices in the crowd who unfairly tried to draw family comparisons, Helm stood her ground as an artist. In 2001, she cofounded the folk group Ollabelle, originally a sextet that also included Byron Isaacs, Glenn Patscha, Fiona McBain, Tony Leone and Jimi Zhivago.
During her Ollabelle stint, Amy served as co-producer with Larry Campbell for 2007’s Dirt Farmer, her dad’s first solo album in 25 years. Campbell, a longtime musical mainstay of the Helm clan who produced Ollabelle’s 2006 Riverside Battle Songs, took the production reins again to complete Levon’s Grammy-winning solo trifecta from 2007-11.
“There is always the stigma attached to the progeny of an iconic father,” Campbell told the Wall Street Journal in 2015. “Either you have talent or you don’t, and Amy’s got more than plenty. She owns everything she does.”
Carrying on the Midnight Ramble movement with shows at the Barn, built again by her dad after most of the original structure was destroyed by fire in 1991, seemed as natural as playing in a band, whether it was the Barn Burners, Ollabelle or the Handsome Strangers, her first group of players as a soloist.
“As a young woman, singing at the Midnight Rambles with my dad when those first started and getting to hear all the guests who came through,” was an “incredible” experience for Helm. “And the one that stands out the most to me was Allen Toussaint [among Levon’s favorites]. … You know, the Barn … only seats about 200 people. And getting to hear him in that room at the piano, it was such an energetic shift, such a palpable shift in the room, and it was just like being in the presence of greatness.”
Still performing with the Midnight Ramble Band and a rotating cast of players on the road, a fully-vaccinated Amy Helm gets to take center stage as host and headliner for two upcoming shows at Levon Helm Studios. Tonight’s (17 June) event, including an interview, begins at 8:00 pm EST and will be streamed on Facebook and YouTube followed by an already sold-out album release show at 4:00 pm EST on 19 June, fittingly right before Father’s Day.
Shifting from group member to solo status has been somewhat seamless for Helm, who has occasional Ollabelle reunion shows or performs with Leone (a member of the Midnight Ramble Band), and McBain, who brought her daughter and played at one of the Memorial Day weekend events.
“I’m still tight with all those folks,” continues Helm, who moved on from Ollabelle because “everybody just kind of had kids and couldn’t pay the rent and had to take other gigs. … We just weren’t making enough money as a band.”
The solo turn does have its drawbacks, too. “Everything scared me about it,” Helm discloses. “Because being a musician isn’t easy. … The work is inconsistent, the money is inconsistent and it takes a lot of faith and confidence in what you’re doing. But luckily, you know, it’s a lot of damn fun. …
“I’ve had such an incredible time learning how to do this more and getting, trying to get better at it. So I was afraid and sometimes I still am afraid and I think every musician and singer gets scared sometimes that something’s gonna go wrong. (laughs) But luckily you take it a day at a time and you have the reward of getting better at your craft.”
Yet the self-confidence that was once lacking is certainly there within herself as she considers the takeaways after reaching this stage of her career with What the Flood Leaves Behind.
“Great accomplishments as a mom, as a singer. And when I say accomplishments, I mean getting something where I want it, right?” Helm surmises. “Being able to sing a song for two or three years on the road and then finally feel like I maybe placed it where I wanted it at some gig in the middle of Indiana. And as a mom, you know, becoming more patient, learning how to react differently to my kids, learning how to be more loving and more connected.”
It’s only a matter of time before her children inherit the Helm legacy, even if their last name is Collins.
Regarding Lee’s artistic ambition, Helm oozes enthusiasm, “He’s committed. You should stick this kid in a van and give him a negative bank account balance and send him on his way. He’s a lifer, I can tell. He just eats, sleeps, breathes drums. He’s just drums all the way.”
The proud mom heaps more praise on her youngsters … then humorously reveals an ulterior motive. “And Hughie … has a great singing voice and is very good at piano. And I think he’s coming along,” she reports. “He’s a little more shy, so he’s taking his time but my dream is … I want Hughie to learn how to play bass so I have the best rhythm section in the East. And I can hire them cheap.”
Let the succession procession continue. As the Helm family tree grows, life on the road should be a heir-raising experience. And somewhere up there, Levon will keep on smiling.