RECORDINGS : Quick Spins

RECORDINGS : Quick Spins

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


Levon Helm

It's hard to say what's more affecting here, the fact that Levon Helm has his voice back after losing it to throat cancer in 1998 or the heart with which he mines the musical and cultural mother lode of his Arkansas youth. Either way, "Dirt Farmer" stands as an exquisitely unvarnished monument to Americana from a man whose keening, lyrical vocals have become synonymous with it.

Arrangements built around mandolin, fiddle, accordion and pump organ bring to mind Helm's work with the Band, as do the record's stacked vocal harmonies, which in two or three places evoke his old group's sublime take on "Ain't No More Cane" from "The Basement Tapes."

If anything, though, "Dirt Farmer" reaches further back in time than those epochal sessions. A handful of the songs here are traditional, and that's not including Helm's juking update of the Carter Family's "Single Girl, Married Girl," a ballad that had been around for years before A.P. Carter borrowed it from somebody he met in the hills of southwestern Virginia. Of the more newly minted songs on the record, Steve Earle's "The Mountain" and Buddy and Julie Miller's "Wide River to Cross" drink from a musical wellspring that's been flowing for centuries.

Helm's world-weary drumming graces half a dozen tracks here. His daughter Amy plays drums on a couple of others and sings her heart out throughout, but maybe nowhere with more knowing relish than on the moaning chorus of Delta bluesman J.B. Lenoir's "Feelin' Good."

-- Bill Friskics-Warren

DOWNLOAD THESE"Poor Old Dirt Farmer," "Feelin' Good," "Wide River to Cross"

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