It would be unnecessary to point out the Band’s contributions to rock, and it would be equally unnecessary to point out Levon Helm’s percussion and vocal contributions to the Band. Since that group’s final dance, its members have done little of recognition outside of diehard circles. With someone as talented as Helm, that fading feels bizarre (even acknowledging the appropriateness of his group’s name). With Dirt Farmer, he’s back with an album that should gain him some new notice, in part because it’s not as much of a solo project as you might expect.
The path to Dirt Farmer was neither short nor easy. First, Helm’s recording studio burned down. Next he had surgery for throat cancer followed by 28 radiation treatments (meaning he might never sing again). Then old bandmate Rick Danko died. Few people ended the old millennium on a worse streak. By 2004, Helm was singing again and his daughter Amy Helm convinced him that he could come back completely, and the idea for a recording of old Helm family favorites took root.
As much as the album’s story points to suffering and the ultimate surmounting of obstacles, and as much as Helm has an unmistakable and emotive voice, the album doesn’t rely on academic notions of “authenticity”. The album’s songs (a mix of traditional, older folk works, and like-minded contemporary pieces) certainly reflect on hardship, heartbreak, and the like, but it’s not simply a disc that’s dependent upon our ability to connect with Helm’s ability to connect with these stories. Instead, it’s a work of subtle artistry.
That’s a fitting approach to a recording for a drummer who made his mark by tasteful and skilled performances that avoided calling attention to themselves. On Dirt Farmer, Helm works primarily with Amy Helm and Larry Campbell (recently of Bob Dylan’s touring band) to create new arrangements for these pieces that not only fit the songs’ original ideas, but also give the album a unified feel.
Even more effective than the musical decisions are the harmonies provided throughout. Amy leads the way here, choosing lines that complement her father’s singing while building a rich vocal sound. Teresa Williams (Campbell’s wife) joins on a number of songs. When Amy and Williams both sing, they have a knack for fitting together perfectly while creating full, bluesy tones. “A Train Robbery” (a Paul Kennerly song) provides the best example; the female vocals give this track an epic scale while maintaining an individual’s importance. “Single Girl, Married Girl” lets the women unleash a greater twang, and the whole band matches the playfulness of the old A.P. Carter cut.
Other guests give key contributions, too. On Steve Earle’s “The Mountain”, Julie and Buddy Miller provide the harmonies. Having a prominent male backing vocal adjusts the tone of the album just a little, darkening it proportionately to the number’s content. Byron Isaacs, who has recorded with Amy in Ollabelle, provides bouncy basslines that suffer from being consistently too low in the mix. They aren’t brilliant parts, but, in line with the aesthetic of Dirt Farmer and its artists, fit in well and fill out the performances without grabbing the spotlight. Isaacs also wrote “Calvary”, one of the albums’ grimmer numbers and a cut that slows the pace without dragging down the album.
Of course, for all this talk about the importance of the various team members and the functioning of the group, you’d think we were talking about Helm’s old group, but don’t be mistaken: Helm still shines. “Poor Old Dirt Farmer” shows why he’s such a memorable vocalist, as he manages to keep the tune just playful enough to remind you that it’s a farce while hinting at the darker story underneath (it matters what happens to the dirt farmer, whether the story is presented with chuckles or not). It’s not a matter of sleight-of-hand on the album, though; Helm performs just as well on straightforward numbers like the Millers’ “Wide River to Cross”. As he sings, “I’m only halfway home / I’ve got to journey on”, he beautifully reminds us of how much lies ahead of us (for good or bad), no matter what we’ve already come through. Okay, so this one might have a little bonus “authenticity”, but that doesn’t make any less of an artful performance.