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The Beginnings of the Band: Getting Started, Meeting Bob Dylan, and 'Music From Big Pink'

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There are four others in the band. Like Robertson, three of them came from Canada. At the organ, there is Garth Hudson, who had started out to attend agricultural college until a photograph of his uncle playing trombone in a dance band led him into the study of music theory and harmony. By the time he was 13, he says, he was the only one in London, Ontario, who knew how to play rock and roll. On the bass guitar, there is Rick Danko, who was born the son of a woodcutter in the Canadian tobacco belt village of Simcoe, where he grew up listening to Grand Old Opry on a wind-up Victrola and a battery radio. There was no electricity in his house, he explains, until he was 10. At the piano, Richard Manuel does most of the singing in a style that echoes the faint signal of the John R rhythm and blues show, broadcasting all the way from Nashville over Radio Station WLAC, 1510 on the dial.

"It was that era's underground radio," remembers Manuel. "I was about 13, and you had to stay up late to get it. You have to remember I was in Stratford, Ontario, at the time."

Organist Garth Hudson was born in London, Ontario to a farming family whose relatives included a number of musicians. "My uncles all played in bands and my father had a lot of old instruments around the house. I guess I began to play the piano when I was about five." Garth's high school band was "kind of a vaudeville act" according to him, and it wasn't until later that he began playing rock and roll. "I'd heard country for years though," he says. "My father used to find all the Hoedown stations on the radio and then I played accordion with a country group when I was twelve." After high school, Garth left Canada to form his own group in Detroit. Unlike most rock organists, Garth uses the Lowrey organ which, having a wider variety of orchestral sounds, has a specifically enriching effect on the texture of the band's music.

The only member of the group born in the United States, drummer Levon Helm comes from West Helena, Arkansas, the home of blues harp player Sonny Boy Williamson. "I used to listen to him a lot when I was a kid," he recalls, "but I think my influences are more general than specific." Like the other members of the band, Levon had his own rock group in high school. "It was called The Jungle Bush Beaters if you can believe it, but it was a good group." Richard Manuel is his favorite drummer and Levon doesn't listen to records. "It gets like TV," he remarks. "I once watched TV for six whole months. Didn't do anything else. That's what happens when you spend your time listening. You end up not playing and that's all I really want to do."

Rick Danko, born in Simcoe, Ontario, began playing guitar, mandolin and violin before high school and played in a band before he reached his teens. He dropped out of high school and joined Ronnie Hawkins when he was seventeen. "It had to do with physical education," he says. "Actually, I always wanted to go to Nashville to be a cowboy singer. From the time I was five, I'd listened to the Grand Ole Opry, the blues and country stations." Rick, who played rhythm guitar before joining The Hawks and now plays bass, doesn't like to think of himself as a musician. "Like I don't read music."

They all met playing with Ronnie Hawkins, who hired them one by one until, after three years, they quit. They were playing at a night club in the seashore resort of Somers Point, New Jersey, when, in the summer of 1965, Dylan telephoned them.

"We had never heard of Bob Dylan," says drummer Levon Helm, who, as a sharecropper's son from the South Arkansas Delta country, is the only American in the band. "But he had heard of us. He said, 'You wanna play Hollywood Bowl?' So we asked him who else was gonna be on the show. 'Just us,' he said."

Whether or not Dylan, even in absentia, can be heard on the record as a sixth member of the band, Music From Big Pink will have to be judged on its own merits, not his. Probably it won't be. In taste, in modesty, in humor and perhaps even in perception, many of those merits tend to coincide, and one of the purest of Dylan's unpublished songs, "I Shall Be Released," graces the album like a benediction. "They say every man needs protection . . . They say that every man must fall . . . Yet I swear I see my reflection . . . somewhere so high above this wall," the lyrics go, but they don't go without music and, instrumentally, the band vindicates Dylan's taste in choosing them as his backup group in the first place.

What the band plays is country rock, with cadences from W.S. Wolcott's Original Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show and music that tells stories the way Uncle Remus did, with the taste of Red River Cereal and the consistency of King Biscuit Flour. Robertson himself calls it mountain music, "because this place where we are — Woodstock — is in the mountains."

With Music From Big Pink, the band dips into the well of tradition and comes up with bucketsful of clear, cool, country soul that wash the ears with a sound never heard before. Music From Big Pink is the kind of album that will have to open its own door to a new category, and through that door it may very well be accompanied by all the reasons for the burgeoning rush toward country pop, by the exodus from the cities and the search for a calmer ethic, by the hunger for earth-grown wisdom and a redefined morality, by the thirst for simple touchstones and the natural law of trees. "Isn't everybody dreaming?" Richard Manuel sings, ". . . Then the voice I hear is real . . . Out of all the idle scheming . . . can't we have something to feel?"

This story is from the August 24th, 1968 issue of Rolling Stone.

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

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