Graded on a Curve:
Levon Helm,
Electric Dirt

Talk about your survivors; legendary Band drummer/vocalist Levon Helm was 69 years old when he released 2009’s wonderful (and moving) Electric Dirt, and he packed a whole lot of very hard living (and a near fatal case of throat cancer) into those 69 years.

But this proud son of cotton farmers from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas triumphed over it all, and went out on a valedictory note with a pair of twilight LPs (2007’s Dirt Farmer garnered him a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2008) that did nothing but enhance his status as one of the most distinctive vocalists and drummers of the rock era.

Helm may have run with real slick customers (Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson, for starters), and he spent his fair share amount of time atop the Big Rock Candy Mountain, but he never lost that rural twang. His singing was equal parts white clay grit, visionary yowl, and sly country swing, and it provided some much needed American coloring to Robbie Robertson’s Canadian songwriting palette–he was the only fella in the Band who could have pulled off “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

The years that followed the break-up of the Band were no kinder to him than to anybody else in the group; he messed around some, landed a memorable movie role or two, and put together some great touring bands and played his ass off, but his recording career was spotty at best.

Which is what makes the last two LPs he recorded before his death so wonderful. On Dirt Farmer he reached way, way back to explore his folk roots; come Electric Dirt he stretched out and went the funky Americana route, and ended up winning the first ever Grammy Award for Best Americana album for his efforts.

I prefer Electric Dirt myself; it’s a spritelier affair (just check out the Big Easy-influenced take on the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed”), Helm’s in better voice if still a bit creaky, and he ain’t afraid to throw some real oddballs our way (his very Cajun-fried cover of Randy Newman’s ode to Huey Long, “Kingfish,” is both celebratory and definitive).

Helm only co-wrote one song, but then he was never a songwriter; he was an interpreter, the kind of singer who could wrap his distinctive vocal chords around everything from gospel to the blues to gutbucket rock’n’roll and soul. That said, Levon’s sole contribution (the subsistence farmer turned marijuana grower tale “Growin’ Trade”) is great; he captures that farmer’s dilemma–it’s either see his livelihood and traditional way of living go under or break the law–in a voice that is as resigned as it is defiant.

Elsewhere Helm sings and plays his heart out on everything from the Appalachian lovely “Golden Bird” (by Dylan collaborator Happy Traum) to a pair of acoustic Muddy Waters’ blues (“Stuff You Gotta Watch” is some stuff you gotta hear) to Roebuck Staples’ very electric “Move Along Train,” which Helm pushes down the track on sheer stubborn willpower alone.

“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” has the luminous feel of a great Band song; a “creaky old coot” (Robert Christgau) Helm may have been, but he still knew how to make his voice jump like a trout. As for his take on Carter Stanley’s “White Dove,” well, he sounds every bit the man who has lived every one of his years in sorrow but knows that better things await him in the great bye and bye.

In so far as Electric Dirt was recorded in Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock–just down a narrow two-lane road from where he and the Band collaborated with Bob Dylan on the songs that would become known as the Basement Tapes–it does more than just capture Helm’s indomitable spirit. It closes a circuit and summons up old ghosts, and brings them all back home again.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • Tom McCool

    I love both albums. Must be noted that Levon is accompanied on vocals by his daughter, Amy, making the music so bittersweet.

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