The story leading up to the making of Levon Helm's first album in 25 years is filled with so much triumph over adversity that you might think it's made up. In the late '90s, Helm, who played drums and sang for the Band, was diagnosed with throat cancer, and the radiation treatment robbed him of his voice. Pretty soon he was forced to declare bankruptcy. His home studio in Woodstock, New York, burned, and his friend and Bandmate Rick Danko died in his sleep.
Yet Helm worked to recover his voice. He rebuilt his studio and gradually began playing and singing again, launching a popular concert series called the Midnight Rambles. And, with friends and daughter Amy Helm of Ollabelle, he recorded Dirt Farmer, a stirring collection of old family songs and covers of new songs.
Helm, who grew on the family farm near Marvell, Arkansas, dedicates the album to his parents, who taught him songs like "Little Birds" and "The Girl I Left Behind." He turns these traditional ditties into lively acoustic numbers whose mix of folk, country, Cajun, bluegrass, and even jazz echoes Helm's work with the Band. "Poor Old Dirt Farmer" leavens its dire story about a failing farm with potent shots of grim humor: "Well, the poor old dirt farmer, how bad he must feel/He fell off his tractor up under the wheel," Helm sings. "And now his head is shaped like a tread/But he ain't quite dead."
Helm sounds strong and confident on Dirt Farmer. His voice is weathered but not weak, and his drums still pop agilely around the beat. On Paul Kennerley's "A Train Robbery," with its period details and dramatic chorus, he sounds sinister, the choir of voices behind him like a gang of thieves. The Carter Family's "Single Girl, Married Girl" and the Stanley Brothers' "False Hearted Lover Blues" get dramatically new arrangements that bolster Helm's alternately soulful and playful performance.
His best moment, however, is his cover of Steve Earle's "The Mountain," which loses the bluegrass lilt of the original for Appalachian gravity. Helm sounds defiant and convincingly outraged as he laments the mining industry's toll on his home, and his delivery of the verse melody is one of many moments that prove Dirt Farmer doesn't need its back story to be powerful and moving. — Stephen Deusner