Levon Helm, legendary drummer for the Band, is enjoying yet another round of critical acclaim — this time for a solo release, Dirt Farmer, his first studio album since 1982 and one that has already earned him a Grammy nomination.
In the liner notes, Helm reveals that his family encouraged him "to record some of the family songs from home that we always loved best." Dedicated to his since-departed Arkansas parents, Dirt Farmer boasts old traditional numbers like "The Blind Child" and "Little Birds," for which Helm plays acoustic guitar and is backed up on harmony vocals by his daughter Amy.
As wonderful as these faithful arrangements are, it's only when he sits at the drum kit that listeners are treated to a distinctive rhythmic attack — at once loose, swinging, and expansive. Moreover, Helm spins pure magic out of the raw fabric of Steve Earle's "The Mountain," bringing to life the song's characters and its story of life in a coal mine.
It's hard to ignore the fact that, before recording this album, Helm survived a bout with throat cancer, after which he struggled to regain his voice. It's back, and while it's not the same as when he and Robbie Robertson used to drive old Dixie down, its rasp only enhances the deeply spiritual impulse guiding these rough-hewn narratives of rough-hewn people who drink too much corn liquor, who fornicate perhaps too often, and yet express their vulnerability in genuine verse and music. Dirt Farmer is a lovely garden very much worth exploring, and ideal for any and every folk-music enthusiast.
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