The first solo studio album in a quarter-century by former Band stalwart Levon Helm is miraculous not because it won a Grammy just this week for Best Traditional Folk Album, or for its infectious take on rough-hewn Americana, but simply because it exists at all.
Helm, whose unmistakable Arkansas yowl was as key a part of the Band as were his slithery drums and keening mandolin, had already endured a succession of hardships when he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Extensive radiation treatments left him cancer-free but with a ravaged voice. A decade later, Helm's unexpectedly restored voice makes the vintage and simpatico contemporary material on Dirt Farmer bristle and blaze with gritty intensity. Invaluable, too, are the cadre of ace musicians helping out, particularly former Bob Dylan band member Larry Campbell.
Also key are members of the rootsy gospel band Ollabelle—most prominently, daughter Amy Helm. They follow Helm's lead in fashioning a critical mass of country, folk, gospel, and blues that resonates authenticity while still managing to factor in rock 'n' roll. But at the core of Dirt Farmer are the traditional songs that Helm learned from his parents on their Turkey Scratch cotton farm. Setting the tone is a meticulously balanced version of the Stanley Brothers' "False Hearted Lover Blues," juggling tragedy, yearning, and mayhem with Campbell's hectoring mandolin and Helm's deliciously anguished vocals. Mixing seamlessly with the old stuff are such tunes as Byron Isaacs's "Calvary," and the Millers' hymn-like "Wide River to Cross," a shimmering ribbon that, like Helm's journey back from the brink, is fraught with swirling currents, hope, and glory.
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