Levon Helm

Dirt Farmer (Vanguard)

Phases & Stages

Levon Helm

Dirt Farmer (Vanguard)

If Levon Helm's first studio album in 25 years strikes an overly joyous chord, it's not without good reason. Diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, the backbeat of the Band was left bankrupt and voiceless, slowly recovering from both with Midnight Rambles at his studio-barn in Woodstock. Dirt Farmer thus proves a revelation, not only through Helm's amazingly rich vocals but also in the return to his Arkansas roots with a perspective and emotion that testifies to perseverance and faith. The scratchy cut of his voice furrows the traditional material exceptionally, the acoustic set sown with poignantly effusive, if raw, versions of "False Hearted Lover Blues," "The Blind Child," and Cajun-slanted "Poor Old Dirt Farmer." Accented by daughter Amy's harmonies and Dylan alum Larry Campbell's guitar and fiddle, the stark Appalachian tremble of "Anna Lee" and exquisitely gentle determination of "Wide River to Cross" balance against J.B. Lenoir's rollicking "Feelin' Good," the playful "Got Me a Woman," and honky-tonk take on the Carter Family's "Single Girl, Married Girl." Steve Earle's miner's lament "The Mountain" provides the finest moment, however, recalling the Band in sound and driven by Helm's steady and forceful pulse on drums. At 67, Levon Helm ain't waltzing his last.

***.5

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