Her dad was Levon Helm, the renowned drummer for the Band. Mom is singer-songwriter Libby Titus, and her stepfather is Steely Dan's Donald Fagen. Still, when it comes to making music, Amy Helm is very much her own person.
"All of my parents, stepparents, their friends and peers [were] really good in backing off and letting me find my way," Helm tells Rolling Stone Country of making her rootsy new album, Didn't It Rain. "And then when I was giving in to fear too much, they were really good about stepping in. My dad would always say to me, 'Buck up, girl!'"
Though the set marks her solo debut, Helm is hardly a newcomer. She recorded three albums with alt-country quartet Ollabelle and spent 10 years in the Midnight Ramble Band with her father. Levon played on three tracks on Amy's record, his last recordings before he passed away in 2012. He's not the only recognizable name on the album: Allison Moorer sings back up, while John Medeski and Little Feat's Bill Payne both play keyboards.
It's clearly heard on the project that Helm shares a certain loose-limbed sensibility with Bonnie Raitt, her rangy voice easily sliding from the New Orleans' tinged title track (one of several covers on the album) to the swampy closer, "Wild Girl." Rolling Stone Country caught up with the versatile singer-songwriter in Colorado, where she was on a working vacation with her two young sons.
Following your success with Ollabelle and the Ramble, why was the time right to do a solo record?
I wanted to challenge myself to step farther out and see what it would feel like to have to lead a song and lead a whole set and to do what all my heroes that made me want to sing in the first place were doing.
Over the course of making the album, you were going through a lot of life changes, including your father's death. How did that affect the album?
I was facing the end of my marriage and delivered my second baby boy and everything just shifted all at once. When that happens, it really throws you into a place where you have to reach deep down and let yourself get very vulnerable and find your strength in a way that you hadn't had to before. [The changes] re-formed how I sang the songs and what I was writing and what material I was choosing.
And you re-recorded half the album.
When I started making that album I had actually never done a gig of my own. After my father passed, I started to do small gigs under my own name. As we built the band and got more confident, what we were doing live just didn't match what I had recorded so I felt it was really important for me to go in and try to re-cut some of the songs that had changed and grown so much just from being road tested.
Your dad is listed as Executive Producer. What role did he play exactly?
Financially, he was giving me studio time at no cost, [and] he was giving me a little extra money here and there to pay the musicians. He had wanted to see me do this probably 10 years before I did. I think he was really excited to watch me take what I had learned and the musical musculature I had developed with Ollabelle and the Ramble Band and try it in new waters. He had that vision for me before I had it for myself.
Beyond the songs he plays on, how much of the album did he get to hear?
He got hear a lot of it, which makes me really happy.
What is your favorite memory of performing with your dad?
When my dad's voice started to come back after he had treatments for throat cancer. He had lost his voice completely. There was a period of time when he would try [to sing] a little bit with just the two of us in the living room, with the mandolin and guitar, singing hymns that he had grown up on, singing a Muddy Waters song he wanted to show me, singing "In the Pines," together. He could just barely whisper and I could tell exactly what he was trying to do, and I found him with my voice and we just whisper-sang. I felt honored to be able to share that with him in the musical way and start healing that part of his voice.
What have you learned about performing from touring with Patty Griffin and Mavis Staples this summer?
Both of them stand inside themselves and their artistry so clearly and so strongly. They know what they want to tell, and I really admire that. Of course, with Mavis being part of the civil rights movement, watching her sing some of those songs and give that out to people with such joy and such commitment — she knows that these songs have to be learned by the next generation. It's very powerful. I finish my set and I get out into the house and find an empty seat, and I'm just transfixed every night.