Levon Helm, “Tennessee Jed” from Electric Dirt (2009): Across the Great Divide

With Electric Dirt, Levon Helm moved beyond the spacious, reserved instrumentation that marked his ’07 comeback to craft something that sounded as much like a Band record as anything its collective members have issued since The Last Waltz in 1978. This urgent and rangy project, so full of authentic verve and galloping eclecticism, marked Helm’s return not just as a grizzled survivor but as an artist in full again.

In that way, Levon Helm’s Electric Dirt couldn’t have opened with any more appropriate moment than this rumbling Grateful Dead remake. Listen closely, and all of the intricacy of Levon Helm’s best work is there once more, despite a lengthy period battling throat cancer: This take on “Tennessee Jed,” underneath its rambunctious musical surface, is governed by a dark and deep sense of loss — this candid accounting of (and quiet mourning for) the old times, the old ways, the old friends.

Recording again with multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell as producer at Helm’s personal studio (he’s also an ex-collaborator with Bob Dylan), Levon takes time elsewhere for the kind of weary reminiscences (“Growing Trade”) and spry blues standards (“Stuff You Gotta Watch”) that gave Dirt Farmer such oaken resonance. Moments like “Tennessee Jed,” however, make the follow up the more complete project. As Levon Helm strikes just the right balance between hootenanny rattle and front-porch lament, fans of every classic Helm-sung tune will recognize that fuller complexity as uniquely his own.

Along the way, “Tennessee Jed” is transformed, becoming another one of those songs (like “I Shall Be Released,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “Blind Willie McTell” and “Atlantic City”) that, once covered by members of the Band, is then forever their own.

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.

Jimmy Nelson

Jimmy Nelson

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Jimmy Nelson