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Levon Helm Gets Back To House Party Roots With "Midnight Ramble" Barn Parties

July 23, 2009 2:45 PM ET

Over 40 years since his earthy wail graced the Band's classic-beyond-classic "The Weight" — and 11 years since cancer and radiation treatments reduced it to a whisper — singer-drummer Levon Helm is busy making music as powerful as ever. In the latest issue of Rolling Stone, Austin Scaggs hung out in Helm's kitchen just outside of Woodstock, New York. Since 2004, he's been holding the Midnight Ramble, a relaxed jam held nearly every Saturday in his barn. Since Helm's cancer was defeated and his vocal cords have returned, he's released two albums, the Grammy-winning collection of country hymns and folk tunes Dirt Farmer, and this year's Electric Dirt. "This go round has been a lot more fun," he says. "Now I know I've got enough voice to do it." Both albums were fueled on the intimate energy of his weekly Rambles.

"The Midnight Ramble is Helm's idea of a perfect house party," writes Scaggs. "Old-time music, playing late into the night, studio quality acoustics and a rapt audience, many of whom arrive bearing casseroles for the potluck dinner. There is an appealing intimacy at the barn; from the best seats one can literally reach out and touch Helm's ride cymbal." After radiation treatments destroyed his vocal cords, Helm used the Rambles to ease back into singing, slowly working his voice back up in a relaxed environment, and as Helm says, "without some club owner or promoter telling me to sing a few 'old ones."

Read more about Helm's Midnight Ramble, and his various special guests (Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, Donald Fagen and many more) in RS issue 1084, on newsstands now.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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