Levon Helm, “Dance Me Down Easy” from American Son (1980): Across the Great Divide

This is a setting, like the measured context of the Band’s early work, that perfectly suits Levon Helm’s voice, pulling new textures to the fore that add substance and context to his familiar Deep South yowl. For all of its randy impishness, “Dance Me Down Easy” is as spacious, and as well executed, as anything Helm did on the similarly lascivious “Rag Mama Rag” or “Up on Cripple Creek.”

Co-written by Billy Burnette, who likewise wrote for Ricky Nelson and later was a member of Fleetwood Mac, “Dance Me Down Easy” gives Levon Helm the room to explore a gorgeous gospel inflection — even while you still hear the smile curling up his face. Part of sessions at Bradley’s Barn in Nashville that grew out of a soundtrack for Helm’s Loretta Lynn biopic, the song connects on a friendly, elemental level, but it’s not as simple as it sounds.

From its coiled riff to its loping cadence to its hootenanny backing vocals, American Son — produced by Nashville legend Fred Carter Jr., who had a shared history of working with both Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan — puts Levon Helm in a homey spot that nevertheless keeps him on his toes.

After a pair of solo albums that focused more on the R&B side of Levon Helm’s earliest influences, American Son returned to a place that he’d definitively staked out in the previous decade and a half with the Band, echoing and (in some spots) amplifying those earlier triumphs. And Helm rose to the challenge brilliantly.

Unfortunately, as would be the case for the bulk of Levon Helm’s career before his stirring late-2000s comeback, American Son disappeared with little trace. Out of print for years, his best early album is almost impossible to find anymore. But it’s every bit the career-defining moment that 2007’s much-more-heralded Dirt Farmer was, even if it remains far less heard.

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