Across the Great Divide: Levon Helm, “Hurricane” from American Son (1980)

A dirt-road funk fable, “Hurricane” was the perfect vehicle for Levon Helm — a figure whose voice conveyed a pride of ownership in every year, every wrinkle, every triumph over adversity. Nobody (not in the Band, not anywhere) embodied a sense of hard-bitten, country-strong determination in the face of insurmountable adversity quite like Helm.

And so we have “Hurricane,” one of numerous triumphs from 1980’s unjustly overlooked American Son. It’s the story of someone facing down an epic storm, holding on to nothing more than faith in his town, nothing more than a sense of place that says: We’re staying. No matter what. Situated inside an appropriately fierce groove, Helm’s “Up on Cripple Creek“-ish gumption completes a song that could just as easily have found a home on the Band’s self-titled sophomore triumph as on Helm’s too-long out of print third solo disc — right down to these greasy keyboard asides straight out of the Garth Hudson playbook.

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Unfortunately, Helm didn’t have similar chart success with what can now be seen as a definitive reading of the lyric. Such disappointments were actually becoming quite commonplace, something that ran through Helm’s early solo career like a vein of ice-cold water.

Not long before these sessions, for instance, the Blues Brothers had pulled the guts out of his travelling RCO All-Stars band — hurtling them all, but not Helm, toward newfound fame. This time, Leon Everette (at best, a Johnny Lee knockoff) somehow took his version of “Hurricane” to No. 4 on the country charts in 1981.

American Son had actually grown out of soundtrack work for the Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter, in which Helm played the country star’s father. Helm went into the studio to cut an update of “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” the Bill Monroe standard, and found himself on a roll alongside producer (and fellow alum of both the Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan bands) Fred Carter Jr. at Bradley’s Barn studio in Nashville. Also on hand were a slew of ace sidemen in Buddy Emmons, Jerry Carrigan, Todd Cerney, the Cate Brothers, Steve Gibson, Hargus “Pig” Robbins and Kenny Buttrey, the latter two of whom had worked with Dylan, as well.

They ended up cutting some 20 tracks over a couple of weeks, including “Hurricane” and nine other songs that eventually became part of American Son. “We figured,” Helm remembered in his book This Wheel’s On Fire, “why not put a little hay in the barn?” The results easily make American Son Helm’s best album before an amazing run of third-act solo successes opened the door for a wave of belated critical praise in the late 2000s. Considering that consistency, the shame is that the rest of these Nashville sessions haven’t been packaged into an expanded reissue. It’s past time for this album to get its due.

Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.