Levon Helm

Dirt Farmer

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During the Band's original run (from 1968 to 1976), Robbie Robertson may have been the group's strongest songwriter and the idea man behind most of their best work, but Levon Helm was truly the group's heart and soul with his tough, sinewy Arkansas vocals and his indomitable, loosely tight drumming. Robertson' solo work since leaving the Band has been the product of a man whose lofty ambitions outstrip his ability to make them interesting, but Helm's music has been the greater disappointment; with the exception of 1980's American Son, most of his solo recordings have been thoroughly disposable, offering plenty of good-time boogie but none of the gravity one might hope for from the man who made "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" come to such compelling life years ago. Which is why Dirt Farmer is such a pleasant surprise; it's easily Helm's best recorded work since American Son, and an absorbing look back at his roots as the son of a farm family in the rural South. Dirt Farmer was produced by Larry Campbell, a session guitarist and member of Bob Dylan's road band, in collaboration with Amy Helm, Levon's daughter, and they've assembled a solid but clutter-free acoustic band for these sessions, and the simple but iron-strong backdrops and superb songs are just what was needed to bring out the best in Levon. Helm survived a bout with throat cancer that was diagnosed in 1998, and his voice is noticeably more weathered than it once was, but in many respects the additional nooks and crannies suit this material beautifully; his interpretations of traditional rural folk songs like "Poor Old Dirt Farmer," "Little Birds," and "False Hearted Lover Blues" sound thoroughly authentic but with a bracing sense of force and commitment in Helm's vocals, and if Steve Earle's "The Mountain" and Buddy & Julie Miller's "Wide River to Cross" aren't venerable classics, they sound like they should be once Levon's done with them. Though Helm adds a touch of boogie to "Got Me a Woman" and a jumped-up interpretation of the Carter Family's "Single Girl, Married Girl," in this context they add some welcome spice to the stew, and Helm's drumming remains superb. Dirt Farmer is a hard-edged but compassionate and full-hearted set of roots music from a master of the form, and it's a welcome, inspiring return to form for Levon Helm after a long stretch of professional and personal setbacks.

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