Levon Helm’s Electric Dirt a Worthy Companion to Cash’s American Recordings

Matt Griffin | September 11th, 2009


Does anyone else wish Levon Helm was their grandfather?

With his easygoing but deliberate way of telling a story, I’ve often thought about how cool it would be to just sit around and listen to him reminisce about his life experiences, his stories flavored with his vast repertoire of southern adages and homespun sayings.

Without a doubt, Helm is a living legend who can captivate audiences with his storytelling—not only in conversation, but also in song.

But today’s country music fans are overlooking what I believe will be, in retrospect, Helm’s equivalent to Johnny Cash’s American Recordings.

Helm first made his mark as the drummer for Bob Dylan’s backup band when Dylan decided to go electric in the mid 60s. A few years later, the same backup band would branch out on their own, fittingly calling themselves The Band. Helm played drums and handled a lion’s share of vocals for The Band, all the way into the early 80s, when the group broke up.

Since then, he’s released numerous solo albums, continued to tour and landed several acting jobs, including roles in “The Right Stuff,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and most recently, the Mark Whalberg thriller, “Shooter.”

Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in the mid 90s, and many people speculated that he wouldn’t live long—much less sing again and create new music. It would be a battle that lasted for almost a decade before he was healthy enough to return to music.

He beat the cancer, and in 2007 returned with Dirt Farmer, a collection that brought together elements from myriad roots and folk sources. It was his first studio release since 1982, and earned him high critical praise, including a GRAMMY.

While Dirt Farmer offers a smattering of different styles, it is mostly composed of traditional songs that Helm reworked on with producer Larry Campbell and his daughter, Amy.

On July 30 of this year, Helm released Electric Dirt. (In case you’re wondering, he comes from a farming family in Arkansas, so that’s what the dirt thing is all about.) Like Dirt Farmer, Electric Dirt has been well received by critics and fans.

On the album, Helm remains focused on recreating country, Americana, folk and rock ‘n roll staples, including the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed,” the Stanley Brothers “White Dove,” and a pair of Muddy Waters’ songs. But the album also features two new songs (“Growin’ Trade” and Heaven’s Pearls”) co-written by Helm.

Recently, I’ve been on a big Levon kick, listening to his latest solo albums, as well as his recordings with The Band, almost on a daily basis. And one thing I’ve noticed as I’ve moved through my social circle is that people under the age of 30 generally know little to nothing about these country music gems.

Ask them about Johnny Cash and they’ll tell you everything you want to know (or at least what they can recollect from Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the Man in Black).

How many black T-shirts with “CASH” in bold, white letters do you remember seeing in the mid 90s when he was making a recording comeback? I don’t remember many, but now it seems as if it’s standard-issue attire for every eighteen year-old enrolling in college. We’ve seen this with other artists after they’re gone, such as Elvis, Ray Charles and presumably Michael Jackson in the future—although “JACKO” T-shirts might be a few decades away.

Whether or not the younger demographic actually understands and appreciates these artists’ music is unclear, but one thing that’s certain is that older artists don’t get the attention of Generation Y until they’ve written their swan song. Then we declare them hip.

While Helm and Cash are very different artists, not only in musical style, but also in terms of personal style, they also share some common country ground: Cash, for example, was (outwardly) a rebel who seemed to embrace the darker side of the music industry early in his career. He was, for all practical purposes, a solo artist for his whole career. And he was politically active (at least through his music), becoming the voice for prisoners and other downtrodden individuals.

Helm, on the other hand, has taken a more happy-go-lucky approach to his music. He didn’t begin as a solo artist, and, for the most part, he’s stayed away from mixing politics–although he does have a soft spot for the plight of the modern day farmer, as can be surmised from the themes of his recent works.

In my opinion, redemption and reflection are what make Helm’s recent records comparable to Cash’s American Recordings, and it’s also what makes them such great albums.

Like Helm, Cash suffered from serious illness in the mid 90s, and his American Recordings were an opportunity to write the final chapters of his legacy. In doing so, he seemed to focus primarily on his past. Both the covers and original material on those albums largely focus on drug abuse, temptation, heartbreak, death and loss. The songs seem to have a sense of authenticity that’s hard to find, probably due to Cash’s sense of urgency.

Similarly, Helm’s last two offerings find him reflecting on his past. While the songs aren’t as somber as many of Cash’s from the American Recordings, they still display a similar raw emotion and authenticity that can’t be manufactured or forged.

Fans of music, particularly from Generation Y, shouldn’t wait until someone as talented as Helm is gone to take note of the incredible music their making. If you’re a country music fan, Electric Dirt is a must have. Whether it’s Helm’s swan song remains to be seen (although any true music fan hopes that isn’t the case), but it shouldn’t have to be for it to be dubbed ‘hip.’

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  1. [...] 9513’s Matt Griffin draws comparisons to Levon Helm’s newest release, Electric Dirt,  to Johnny Cash’s latter career reviving [...]
  1. idlewildsouth
    September 11, 2009 at 9:26 am

    I’ve been meaning to pick this up for a few months now and haven’t gotten around to it yet, but this article makes me want to go out right now. Perhaps I’ll be making a run to Barnes and Noble later. Great read.

    And also, his scene in “The Shooter” has the best line in the whole movie.

  2. pbr
    September 11, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Good read!! Hate I missed the Ryman shows the last few times they have come through.

  3. Wayne
    September 11, 2009 at 10:40 am

    Great article, will Matt be a regular on this site as he has great insight into music and more importantly into the artist.

  4. Darby
    September 11, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    Great read. Hope to see more articles like this.

  5. Stewman
    September 11, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    Great post Matt. The common thread between Helm & Cash is the respect they have/had for the music. Seems generic enough, but even at their career apex they both seemed to be doing it strictly for the love of it.
    Being the voice of many of the songs that shaped my youth, I always thought he was grossly underrated as one of the best rock and roll singers ever, let alone the fact he was playing drums while doing it. The Last Waltz and some other older bootleg videos I watch from time to time are a testament to that talent.

  6. Grizzly Adam
    September 11, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    There have been damn few albums that I’ve listened to repeatedly over the years and this is one of them. I picked up Electric Dirt a couple of months ago along with The Band’s Greatest Hits, since I really haven’t listened to The Band that much and I knew very little about Mr. Helm, and I became an instant fan of Levon’s after hearing this album. I hope I get a chance to see him in Woodstock one day.

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