Levon Helm, even as he was losing his lengthy struggle with cancer earlier this year, had one final wish: That the rollicking hootenannys he’d been hosting at his barn — called the Midnight Rambles — would go on.
Three months after the three-time Grammy winning voice of Band passed at 71, that wish comes true, as the Helm barn comes alive this weekend for a Saturday, July 21, 2012, appearance by former Grateful Dead member Phil Lesh.
Helm launched the Rambles in 2004, after his initial round of chemo treatments, hoping to offset medical expenses. The events quickly become guest-packed house parties, with notable appearances by luminaries like Emmylou Harris, Donald Fagen and Mavis Staples, among many, many others, even as Helm himself saw a third-act career renaissance — releasing three consecutive critically lauded solo albums. His 2007 comeback album Dirt Farmer earned a Grammy for best traditional folk album. The follow up Electric Dirt then won the first-ever Grammy for best Americana album in 2010. Ramble at the Ryman, issued last year, won in the same category.
Helm’s long-time manager Barbara O’Brien has also announced the “Keep It Goin’” initiative, a fundraising effort meant to cover the event’s operating expenses and as well as the mortgage on the Levon Helm Studios — known, affectionately, as “the Barn.” Donation gifts include T-shirts, an exclusive digital download of Helm performing “Drown in My Own Tears” from May 2009, and the inclusion of your name on a new piece of artwork (pictured above) created by artist Sheila Gilday specifically for this effort. The piece, with names etched into a mosaic of picks, is slated to be hung on an interior wall at the Helm studios.
“More than anything, he wanted the music to continue,” organizers write in a posting at LevonHelm.com. “He wanted the barn to be host to artists from all walks of life, from all genres. He wanted children to learn from there. He wanted Rambles to continue. He didn’t want a day to go by without some form of music being heard from within these walls.”
Rolling Stone magazine ranked Levon Helm No. 91 in its list of the 100 greatest singers of all time.
Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Levon Helm. Click through the titles for complete reviews …
GIMME FIVE: CELEBRATING LEVON HELM, CO-FOUNDER AND VOICE OF THE BAND: The loamy voiced, rail-jumping rhythmic center point of the Band, Helm re-emerged in the last decade after an initial diagnosis to reclaim his mantle as yearning storyteller and timeless soul singer. Three straight Grammy awards followed, starting in 2008. Unfortunately, Helm’s third-act triumphs in the studio were matched pace for pace by his illness. Helm, 71, is now said to be in the final stages of his cancer battle. The Arkansas native leaves behind, however, a series of lasting musical statements. Those Grammys helped to underscore Helm’s importance, within the Band and within the broader landscape of American roots music – but it is here, within the songs, that it becomes manifest. Even after all of that, Helm’s signature style remained. His playing was an involving mixture of rhythm and emotion – someone once said he was the only drummer who can make you cry – while his singing remained a wonder of ribald bewilderment, old-time religion and shotgun shack-rattling joy.
LEVON HELM – RAMBLE AT THE RYMAN (2011): We’re reminded again here that Levon Helm was the loamy voiced, rail-jumping rhythmic center point of the Band, its yearning storyteller and gritty soul. Their records were drawn from continuity, bringing in dizzyingly diverse, age-old influences and performed in a chorus as if by brothers. That has always made a treasure hunt out of selecting any individual triumph on their old records. Not here, as this Ramble becomes a showcase for Helm. It’s also an important reminder: The Band’s principal songwriting credits may have gone to Robbie Robertson, but they were then — and are here, again — often completely inhabited by Helm’s carnal Arkansas drawl.
LEVON HELM – ELECTRIC DIRT (2009): Nothing drove old Levon Helm down. Not the messy dissolution of his group, The Band; the perhaps inevitable subsequent financial ruin; a terrifying bout with throat cancer; a pair of shatteringly tragic deaths within his inner circle; or a yawning quarter century span between solo records that made him all but obscure in modern musical circles. There is, of course, a dark and deep sense of loss — this candid accounting of, and quiet mourning for, the old times, the old ways, the old friends that fans of some of The Band’s best-known Helm-sung tunes (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight,” and “Up on Cripple Creek”) will recognize. But Helm sings with the bone-deep confidence of someone who has eyeballed our biggest fears and lived to tell the tale.
LEVON HELM – DIRT FARMER (2007): His earthy, Arkansas drawl epitomized the roots-minded rock combo The Band just as much as Robbie Robertson’s evocative compositions on American folklore. And now he’s back with a rare studio album that makes The Band sound like a sleek, electronica dance music. There’s not a trace of a plugged-in instrument anywhere and amongst songs by Steve Earle and J.B. Lenoir are songs that aren’t even copyrighted anymore. But Helm’s steady drumming and blessedly rural warble remains. That should be plenty good enough for any fan of The Band.