Mr. Helm received three Grammy Awards, including the 2012 Best Americana album for “Ramble at the Ryman,” the 2007 Best Traditional Folk Album for his album “Dirt Farmer,” and the 2009 Best Americana Album award for its follow-up, “Electric Dirt.” The recordings showed Mr. Helm in strong form despite his health — his voice weathered but still resonant.
During The Band’s heyday — from 1968 to 1976 — Mr. Helm sang many of its most enduring songs, including “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek.”
Director Martin Scorsese’s documentary, “The Last Waltz,” filmed in 1976 and released in 1978, chronicled the final concert appearance by The Band’s original members: guitarist Robbie Robertson, organist Garth Hudson, bassist Rick Danko and pianist Richard Manuel.
Many of their songs reflected a fascination with American history and culture, particularly the Deep South. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (1969), credited to Robertson, was from the perspective of a Confederate solider who recounts his losses during the Civil War. Mr. Helm, the son of an Arkansas cotton farmer, was The Band’s only American. The other four members were Canadians.
“The Band, more than any other group, put rock and roll back in touch with its roots,” noted the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. “With their ageless songs and solid grasp of musical idioms, The Band reached across the decades, making connections for a generation that was, as an era of violent cultural schisms wound down, in desperate search of them.”
Though its music was often called “country rock,” The Band was as much influenced by gospel, rhythm and blues, New Orleans jazz and hillbilly music as by the contemporary Nashville music scene. The band often used the mandolin, tuba or accordion in its arrangements. Mr. Helm said the dual keyboard sound — Manuel’s organ and Hudson’s piano — was inspired by Anglican church music.
After The Band split up in 1976, the handsome and lean-faced Mr. Helm launched a secondary career as an actor. In Time magazine, film critic Frank Rich wrote that Mr. Helm brought a “flinty dignity” to his sympathetic role as country singer Loretta Lynn’s father in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980).
Mr. Helm served as narrator in “The Right Stuff” (1983), the film adaptation of writer Tom Wolfe’s account of the Mercury astronauts.
Son of a cotton farmer
Mark Lavon Helm was born May 26, 1940, near Elaine, Ark.; he later went by Levon (pronounced LEE-von). He was raised on the family’s cotton farm in Turkey Scratch, Ark., and started playing guitar at 8.