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The Soul of Woodstock

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Though Helm recovered his physical health, his financial health was another matter. “You can’t afford to pay your bills and buy your medicine—you’ve got to give up one or the other,” Helm said. “I got behind on my mortgage. The only way I could hang onto the place was to declare bankruptcy.” The Barn Burners shows evolved into the more regular Rambles, named after the traveling medicine shows of his Arkansas youth. It was, as Helm puts it, “hard times.” “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to hang onto the place,” he said. “But I thought, well, I’m going to go out with a bang. I’m going to have as many Rambles as I can, and have as many people as I can get come here and enjoy the music and see the place. And then when they see that I’ve sold it, they’ll know what it was.”

But it never came to that. Helm assembled a support team of friends and fans to help him. Barbara O’Brien, a former waitress with a day job at the sheriff’s department, came on as general manager. A New York City fireman and his son drove up on weekends to work in the parking lot. Jerry Klause, from southern Jersey, advises Helm on business matters. All were volunteers. There’s no payroll. “It’s a labor of love for everybody,” Helm said. “I’ve never been able to do anything for any of them—just return their friendship.”

At the same time, Amy began pressing him to record. “I wanted to document him singing again,” she said, “because I thought it was incredible.” She brought in Larry Campbell, a former guitarist in Bob Dylan’s band, as co-producer, and a handful of roots-conscious singers and pickers, including Campbell’s wife, singer Teresa Williams. Helm wanted to begin with the songs that mattered most to him, country and gospel traditionals like “Little Birds” and “The Blind Child.” The lack of a budget didn’t stop anyone. “Sometimes they’d go home with a hundred bucks in their pocket after four or five days of recording,” Amy explained. “Sometimes they wouldn’t.”

Helm says he’s now just about out of bankruptcy. Dirt Farmer, which combines traditional country songs Helm learned from his parents as a child in Arkansas with more recent rural evocations by the likes of Steve Earle and Julie and Buddy Miller, should help. It seizes the southern pastoralism that always lurked in the Band’s music and blows it up full size, in all its gritty, rollicking, joyous, melancholic, and even absurd wonder. “The poor old dirt farmer, how bad he must feel,” Helm sings against sawing fiddles, huffing accordion, and a lurching waltz rhythm. “He fell off his tractor, up under the wheel/And now his head shaped like a tread/But he ain’t quite dead.”

Dirt Farmer is an iconic album, this year’s Time Out of Mind or Freedom. Just give him a Grammy. Not that Helm worries about such trifles anymore. “I don’t have any big plans for it,” he said of the record. “If people like it, then I’ve gotten away with another one.”

Dirt Farmer
Levon Helm. Vanguard Records. $16.98.


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