The title of Levon Helm’s new album — “Dirt Farmer” — captures the last few years of the former Band drummer’s life. No, Helm is not a down-and-out agriculturist, but he has had enough trials and tribulations of late to draw comparisons.
Diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, Helm was told that he might never speak — let alone sing — again. The hefty cost of his cancer medicine forced Helm to declare bankruptcy and almost lose his home/recording studio in Woodstock, N.Y. However, with the support of family and friends, Helm regained control of his financial situation and even started speaking and singing again.
With his demons behind him, Helm set off to record “Dirt Farmer,” his first album in over 25 years. The record is an evocative collection of country folk and bluegrass, a blend of traditional Southern waltzes from his youth and covers of contemporary tunes from the likes of Steve Earle and Paul Kennerley.
The album abounds with the rustic, narrative quality that Helm instilled in some of The Band’s most memorable songs, such as “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” It’s as if “Evangeline” were stretched out to an hour’s worth of material and slightly more countrified.
The most prominent and engaging feature of the album is Helm’s Arkansas drawl, which seems to have effectively recovered from its cancer-induced absence. His recognizable twang has become slightly more world-weary and hoarse, but this listlessness fits nicely into the anecdotal tone of the record. It is not that Helm has a particularly attractive voice, but instead his accentuations are gritty enough to render the protagonists of the songs both believable and absorbing.
Throughout the album, Helm is accompanied by daughter Amy, guitarist/producer Larry Campbell and Campbell’s wife Teresa Williams. Amy balances the gruffness of her father’s voice with the sweet earnestness of her own, creating a genial harmony. Campbell handles his guitar like a pro throughout most of the tracks, but displays his skills best when dueling guitars with Helm on tracks like “Little Birds” and “Got A Woman.” Many of the recordings are fitted with fiddle waltzes and tingling mandolins that interject Cajun spirit into the traditional Southern canticles.
As was the case with The Band, the feature that gives the songs their luster is the story buried within the lyrics. Whether he is recalling the women who have ruined him on “False Hearted Lover Blues” or telling the story of a widowed man with blind offspring on “The Blind Child,” Helm exudes southern-fried wisdom with a tinge of anguish.
Helm’s rendition of “A Train Robbery” stands out as both fiery and captivating. The use of Dobros and flickering tambourines makes the tale of a railroad heist by Jesse James and his brother Frank chilling in its certainty.
A surprising but rewarding track is the bluesy “Feelin’ Good,” where Helm demonstrates his prowess on percussion and clearly loves doing so. Campbell’s guitar sings and shreds its way through numerous mini-solos while retaining a supporting role.
The album ends with “Wide River to Cross,” a rumination on the tenuous relationship between one’s past and future. Helm’s voice comes across as emotionally fragile when he croons, “I’m still a refugee / Won’t you sing a prayer for me / ’Cause sometimes even the strongest soldier falls.”
When he was with The Band, Helm was a Southern drop in a Canadian stew, but on “Dirt Farmer” he represents his rural roots proudly. Though he may have had a great deal of suffering in his old age, Helm is still in his musical prime.