Levon Helm: Electric Dirt

By: Tim Dwenger

One of the great spirits of American music, Levon Helm, has returned with Electric Dirt (released June 30 on Vanguard Records), a stellar follow-up to 2007's Grammy winning Dirt Farmer. Like Dirt Farmer, Helm's new offering features a wide variety of cover tunes but this time the record showcases Helm's return to songwriting on the bittersweet "Growin' Trade." The ballad, which he penned with former Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell (who also produced the album), laments the plight of an American farmer who has been forced to turn his family's cotton plantation into a pot farm in order to make ends meet. It's a plight that is close to Helm's heart as he grew up on a cotton farm in Arkansas in the 1940s and he's immortalized it beautifully with this song.

From the get-go, the record shows that Helm's still in fine form behind the kit and at the mic with a strong, horn-bolstered take on Garcia/Hunter's legendary country shuffle "Tennessee Jed." From there Helm and a top notch band of seasoned musicians launch into a guided tour of Southern musical history as elements of back porch blues, gospel and Dixieland seep into the arrangements of songs by the likes of The Staples Singers, The Stanley Brothers and Muddy Waters.

Though most of these arrangements were put together by Campbell, Helm renewed a partnership with another legendary musical name, Allen Toussaint, during the sessions for Electric Dirt. The pair had worked together back in the early '70s when Toussaint was called into handle the horn arrangements for The Band's 1971 New Year's Eve concert (documented on Rock of Ages), and it's clear he hasn't lost a step either. His contributions to album closer "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free" and a rollicking take on Randy Newman's "Kingfish" are two of the standout cuts on the album.

Helm's warbly tenor may be a little shakier than it was 40 years ago but it's every bit as heart-warming and soul-wrenching as it was in his days with The Band. Electric Dirt is a powerful album that adds to Helm's already monumental legacy and further cements his place as a true American musical legend.

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[Published on: 7/15/09]

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