The last ten years have not been easy for legendary Band drummer and vocalist Levon Helm. In 1998, he had surgery to remove throat cancer and underwent twenty-eight radiation sessions. His barn-turned-studio in Woodstock, New York, was obliterated in a fire and had to be rebuilt, and former bandmate Rick Danko passed away. In spite of all these roadblocks, Helm was inspired to record, and on October 30th he'll release his first solo studio album in twenty-five years, Dirt Farmer. "The last few years have proven to me that we truly live in an age of miracles," the singer writes in the album's liner notes.
Though cancer treatments compromised Helm's voice, he slowly regained the ability to sing via late-night concert sessions held at his Woodstock studio with friends and family. These so-called Midnight Rambles were inspired by the Southern medicine shows Helm remembers from childhood in rural Arkansas, and featured guests like Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Nick Lowe and Warren Haynes. The Midnight Rambles influenced much of Dirt Farmer, and the album includes several traditional songs as well as Helm's interpretation of tracks by Steve Earle and J.B. Lenoir, among others. Multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell (who has played with Lyle Lovett, Solomon Burke and Bob Dylan) worked closely alongside Helm and his daughter Amy on the LP, and Helm plays drums, mandolin and acoustic guitar in addition to handling all the lead vocals.
The album title is taken from the traditional folk song "The Poor Old Dirt Farmer," which appears on the record, as Helm says it's a track that truly resonates with him. "'The Poor Old Dirt Farmer' is a song that my wood-carver/musician friend Michael Copus and I learned together when we worked with Jane Fonda on the Dan Petrie-directed film The Dollmaker down in the heart of the Smokey Mountains, Gatlinburg, TN," Helm writes. "Growing up on a cotton farm in the Arkansas Delta, 'Dirt Farmer' rings true to home."
Dirt Farmer Track List:
1. "False Hearted Lover Blues" (Traditional)
2. "Poor Old Dirt Farmer" (Traditional)
3. "The Mountain" (Steve Earle)
4. "Little Birds" (Traditional)
5. "The Girl I Left Behind" (Traditional)
6. "Calvary" (Byron Isaacs)
7. "Anna Lee" (Laurelyn Dossett)
8. "Got Me A Woman" (Paul Kennerley)
9. "A Train Robbery" (Paul Kennerley)
10. "Single Girl, Married Girl" (A. P. Carter)
11. "The Blind Child" (Traditional)
12. "Feelin Good" (J. B. Lenoir)
13. "Wide River To Cross" (Buddy Miller, Julie Miller)