After a miraculous recovery from throat cancer Levon Helm released his first solo album in nearly a quarter century, 2007’s Dirt Farmer. Helm picked up a Grammy for that one and headed back into the studio for the follow-up release, taking with him his stellar touring band. Electric Dirt picks ups and expands on the themes and sounds of that first recording.
It’s no coincidence that “dirt” is part of the title of both releases. Helm is an Arkansas farm boy and his connection to his southern roots, be it the earth or the culture, is evident on both albums. Kicking off the album is the The Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” a literal call to return home. Helm and his band toured with Phil Lesh over the past couple of years and this song is a tip of the hat to his road buddy, but it also is a perfect place to pick up from the last album. It’s followed by The Staples Singers slow groove gospel/blues number “Move Along Train” and “Growin’ Trade” a paean to Helm’s farming roots. Track 4, “Golden Bird” as written by Happy Traum, is a traditional song that sounds as dusty as an Appalachian antique and Helms delivers it with the weight that it deserves. The song seems to act as a jump off point from “Dirt” to “Electric.”
Beginning with Track 5 Helm and band broaden their musical choices. Helm grew up listening to blues music and recorded an album with Muddy Waters in 1975. Electric Dirt contains 2 Water’s compositions originally recorded during the Dirt Farmer sessions. “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had” and “Stuff You Gotta Watch” feature swampy accordion but it is on Randy Newman’s “Kingfish”that Louisiana gets it’s full due. Allen Toussaint, the great New Orleans musician, arranges horns the track as well as on “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.” Helm’s band consist of Larry Campbell (who also produced)
Levon Helm is an American original who grew up a cotton farmer’s son. He listened to the music of The Grand Ole Opry and Sonny Boy Williamson. He learned to perform at the elbow of Conway Twitty and was part of Dylan’s transformation from folk to electric. His voice is authentic whether he’s singing about the hardships of farming - “I’m half the size I used to be” – or about mortality - “Don’t want no sorrow for this old orphan boy.” The sound is ebullient, triumphant. This is a man who has faced death and used that experience to become a better musician. Helm’s wisdom is packaged in music that is a joy to experience. I encourage you to indulge.