Dirt Farmer, Levon Helm’s first solo album in a quarter century, marks the triumphant and unlikely reemergence of a legendary figure in American music. Helm, the former drummer and vocalist for The Band, known for his gritty Arkansas vocals, was silenced by throat cancer in the late 90s. He regained the ability to sing in 2005 and, as his recovery progressed, began to hold a series of intimate musical gatherings at his Woodstock home. Known as the Midnight Rambles, these sessions provided an ideal environment for Helm and an impressive array of
collaborators to hone the back-to-basics approach that makes Dirt Farmer his first worthwhile recording since 1980’s tragically out-of-print American Son.
It’s not surprising, then, that Dirt Farmer is a supremely organic record. The arrangements are simple but sublime. Helm’s voice, while not the sonorous marvel it was before his illness, has retained its grit and authenticity. And the back-porch choir, anchored by Helm’s daughter Amy, blends expertly with the rest of the band. The songs are pure and unabashed Americana, a well-chosen collection of traditionals and more contemporary numbers penned by the likes of Steve Earle and Buddy and Julie Miller. The album has an appropriately loose feel, roughly approximating the casual jamboree style of the Midnight Rambles.
Perhaps because of the simple instrumentation, the record threatens to become monotonous at times, a victim of its own consistency, particularly where tempo is concerned. But this is an album that rewards repeated listening, revealing new and expanding layers of nuance and complexity. Long-time Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell and the younger Helm deserve much of the credit for these subtleties, having successfully crafted a quietly devastating document of authentic American music with their thoughtful production.
The closing track, Buddy and Julie Miller’s ‘Wide River to Cross’, is perhaps the album’s highlight. And when Helm sings “I’ve come a long, long road/But still I’ve got some miles to go” in the closing bars of the album, we want desperately to believe him because, if Dirt Farmer is any indication, there is much to look forward to from this giant of American music.