Levon Helm, “Feelin’ Good” from Dirt Farmer (2007): Across the Great Divide

The justifiably lauded Dirt Farmer found Levon Helm returning to songs with the gravity and meaning of his best work with the Band. A true follow up to his superlative self-titled 1980 solo debut, this Grammy-winning effort bests it by keeping the arrangements as raw, and real, as the source material.

Levon Helm comes from the same place as “Feelin’ Good” composer J.B. Lenoir, a topical, flamboyant Chicago-transplant born in the woods of Monticello, Mississippi. (Lenoir even worked with Helm’s early hero Sonny Boy Williamson III, before heading north.) It’s a place of hard lessons, but also of good times, of hard-scrabble lives filled with shimmering moments of community. A song like “Feelin’ Good” manages to encapsulate all of those myriad experiences, sounding at once like a barn-raising hoot and a redemptive cry after a very long day.

J.B. Lenoir’s songs are stocked with real people, with real passions and real problems, making them perfect fodder for Helm’s triumphal return after an initial cancer diagnosis. Working with Larry Campbell — who, like Levon, shared a past history of collaboration with Bob Dylan — and daughter Amy Helm, Levon keeps the song’s striking original cadence, personalizing “Feelin’ Good” only with his distinctive Delta yelp.

That’s more than enough to make Lenoir’s track his own, of course, since Levon Helm’s voice packs its own unique backwoods resonance. Here, as elsewhere on Dirt Farmer, you hear new cracks spidering though his colloquial drawl — the result of 28 rounds of punishing radiation treatments in an effort to best his illness. But it tends to work in Levon Helm’s favor here, giving a time-worn, lived-in texture to songs that must have felt just that way to him.

Joined by Byron Isaacs (formerly of Amy Helm’s band Ollabelle) on bass, Amy on duet vocal and mandolin and Campbell on acoustic, Helm makes a masterful reclamation of a sound — of a whole world — that he’d once so thoroughly staked out as a member of the Band. The characters in “Feelin’ Good” could have known Virgil Kane, could have spent the an illicit night with Fanny, certainly followed their own gypsy tail winds.

After a series of subsequent solo records that tended toward blues- and R&B-soaked fun, Dirt Farmer finally sees Levon Helm tracing back there. It goes deeper, experiences more. “Feelin’ Good” is a fine example.

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

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz 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! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso