Levon Helm made a rootsy, thrilling comeback with Dirt Farmer

Vocalist drummers are an amazing lot to me. Not because it’s supposed to be particularly hard to drum and sing at the same time; I wouldn’t know. But for the band to want that guy to take over vocals, he must be pretty good — because the drummer is typically the last person anybody thinks of for a frontman.

Even Genesis went through an exhaustive audition of Peter Gabriel’s replacement before it occurred to them that the answer was right there sitting behind a Gretsch set. Few people even remember anymore that Don Henley is a drummer. Levon Helm is another of those guys. To me, his earthy, Arkansas drawl epitomized the roots-minded rock combo the Band just as much as Robbie Robertson’s evocative compositions on American folklore.

That made Dirt Farmer, a comeback album produced by fellow ex-Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell for release on Oct. 30, 2007, all the more welcome. There wasn’t a trace of plugged-in instruments anywhere amongst songs by Steve Earle and J.B. Lenoir. Other compositions, interpreted throughout by a group featuring Campbell, Buddy Miller and Levon Helm’s daughter Amy, were so sturdy and old that they aren’t even copyrighted anymore.

Holding it all together was Levon — who, despite facing some very serious health issues, displayed the same steady drumming and blessedly rural warble. In itself, that might have been plenty good enough for any fan of the Band. Except Dirt Farmer, which later earned Levon Helm a 2008 Grammy award for best traditional folk album, was so thrillingly rustic that it made the Band sound like sleek electronica.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron