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Dirt Farmer

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CD by Levon Helm.
Vanguard Records.

Levon Helm, drummer and one of the vocalists with The Band, has ended his musical dormancy with Dirt Farmer, his first album of new material in 15 years.

It marks a return to the southern roots that his former band encapsulated so well. This is Helm's first album since he beat throat cancer, and the first thing you notice is that his voice, though it has lost just a little of the power, still maintains the soulfulness that made it so recognizable.

Helm's voice is unique, capturing a weary but indomitable spirit. It sounds as if it just walked 20 miles only to come home to an ailing wife and a foreclosure on the farm; yet tomorrow the voice will get up and do the same thing again. It is the voice that built and established one of the greatest bands in American music.

The Band came up through music's minor leagues before establishing themselves as a formidable act in their own right. They started out as The Hawks, an appropriately named backup band for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, before taking their act "solo." Subsequently, Bob Dylan "discovered" them, and they played as his backing band for the legendary 1965 tour where he went electric.

The Band's public exposure and songwriting skill increased from spending so much time around Dylan. The osmosis is evident on their landmark debut album Music From Big Pink.

Released in 1968, Big Pink unleashed a sound unheard in pop music until that point. Helm and company created a unique fusion of folk, blues and soul among a hodgepodge of other genres that set the framework for scores of imitators to this day. "The Weight," the most famous song on the album, captures the breadth of their influence. Aretha Franklin, and gospel heavyweights The Staple Singers, country legend John Denver and Dylan, himself, have recorded covers of it.

Though Robbie Robertson was the chief songwriter of The Band, Helm was the group's backbone, which is most apparent in their ageless 1969 self-titled album, which features their iconic song, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," driven by Helm's patient, driving drumbeat and authentic vocals.

The Dirt Farmer record covers songs like "The Mountain" and "The Girl I Left Behind," which, when Helm is done with them, could both pass as B-sides from "Up On Cripple Creek." He also shows his old-time country chops on several songs, including one of the album's highlights, "Poor Old Dirt Farmer."

While nothing on the record is tantamount in quality to The Band's best-known songs, it demonstrates the passion Helm brought to the tunes that helped elevate The Band to "immortal" status. That passion makes this record worth hearing, if only just to experience the continuation of a living legend. It's clear others agree: The album has been nominated for a Grammy for "Best Traditional Folk Album."

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