Sunday, December 30, 2007

On the turntable--Levon Helm, Dirt Farmer

I love old timey music--and any genuine attempt to recreate the raw and unfettered, anguish, joy, heartache, and glee that old timey music brings. Levon Helm's Dirt Farmer fits into that category nicely. Helm, former drummer and singer for The Band (Dylan's original electric back up band), has recently come out of retirement following a bout with throat cancer to put together a wonderful piece of Americana. A compilation of traditionals and covers of recent artists like Steve Earle, Paul Kennerly, and Buddy and Julie Miller, Dirt Farmer successfully captures a jug band feel in an age of overproduced and over hyped pop music.

Telling tales of farmers, miners, love lost and love found, Helm's album reflects his musical upbringing. Helm's father, an Arkansas cotton farmer, bought him his first guitar when he was nine, and fashioned his sister a bass out of a washtub. And thus began Levon's musical career. Dirt Farmer is also a family affair, featuring Helm's daughter Amy, on vocals, drums, and mandolin. The familial intimacy is felt throughout the album, particularly on the sweet harmonies between Helm and his daughter.

Helm's voice is remarkably good given his struggle with throat cancer and, based on his NPR interview, that he has trouble talking. Overall, the album is not over produced--thankfully--sounding like it could have been recorded in Helm's living room (I'm sure he has a living room with good acoustics). Helm's cover of Steve Earle's "The Mountain," a sorrowful tale of resignation to a life in the mines and the love of the land, stands out as particularly representative of the work. Also, Paul Kennerly's tongue and cheek look at love, "Got Me a Woman," is excellent.

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