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Austin Songwriter Shelley King Pays Tribute to Levon Helm, Imagines His ‘New Drum Set’

King remembers the Band drummer in a whimsical track on her latest album ‘Kick Up Your Heels’

Shelley King

Austin songwriter Shelley King pays tribute to Levon Helm on her new album 'Kick Up Your Heels.'

Mary Bruton Photography*

Although the majority of tunes on Shelley King’s Kick Up Your Heels shine a light on her fiery guitar and roof-rattling vocals, there’s another artist whose presence bubbles up from the deep, gritty grooves of the Austin-based blues and Americana musician’s ninth album: Levon Helm. The legendary drummer and vocalist with the Band, who died in 2012, inspired the lead-off cut on the LP, a loving homage titled “Levon’s New Drum Set.”

In the album’s dramatic opening moments, the sounds of rolling thunder and a torrential downpour echo one of the inspirations for the writing of the song, which King did in Woodstock, New York, Helm’s longtime home and the location of his musical jam sessions known as the Midnight Ramble.

Like Helm, King was born in Arkansas, and had been fortunate to play with Helm at the Ramble. She has also become close to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member’s daughter, musician Amy Helm, as well as his widow, Sandy. Rolling Stone Country spoke to King about Helm’s influence, her tribute song to the drummer, and the unlikely but pivotal role she played in reuniting her long-divorced parents.

How well did you know Levon Helm?
I met Levon in 2009 and had an opportunity to perform at a Midnight Ramble with him. I got to be in Carolyn Wonderland’s band. She was there recording and I was recording with her and I met him. We did the Ramble and I got to get up and sing “The Weight” in the grand finale, along with Levon and the Ramble band. It was a great opportunity to get to meet him. I didn’t get a chance to know him very well, but he was always kind of hanging around when we were in the studio that week. I got to go back and do another Ramble in early 2011. Then, in 2012, I was on tour up there. When my tour ended I wanted to go to Woodstock and hang out with some friends that I’ve made. I checked the schedule and saw there was a Ramble that was happening. I was so excited about going to the Ramble that I booked a little bed-and-breakfast up there for a couple of days, but he passed away on Thursday before the Ramble was supposed to happen on Saturday.

How did you find out about it?
I was playing in New York City. I had just gone into the city. I had just come out of the Holland Tunnel and heard it on the radio. It was really heavy. I went to my gig and people were saying, “Are you gonna play one for Levon?” I said, “Everything I play will be for Levon!” The next day I went on up to Woodstock and just wanted to at least go ahead and spend my time there that I had booked to spend there, even though there wouldn’t be a Ramble.

How did the writing of “Levon’s New Drum Set” come about?
On Saturday, I sat outside on the porch and tried to write lyrics. All day long, this storm was gathering over the mountains that you can see right there in Woodstock, Overlook Mountain. It was kind of threatening to rain all day. About the time that the Ramble would have started, had it happened, the storm just cut loose with amazing intensity. There were all of these percussive sounds in the storm. The electricity started going out and coming back on. Next to me on the porch there was a gutter and the water was shooting through the gutter, spraying out on a rock, coming down really heavy. It just hit me, what if this is the Ramble? All the sound I was hearing was so amazing, I thought, what if that’s Levon playing his new drum set?

Weather is sort of an ongoing theme on the album. What inspired you and Marcia Ball to write “Hurricane Party”?
We like to go out walking on the trails here in Austin. I’d been bouncing ideas for this record off of her for a while and getting advice from her. I was out on the trail walking one morning when I got a text from her that said that she was in Florida but she was coming back early because her gig had gotten canceled because of a hurricane that was coming. We like to play dominoes together. We have a whole group of girls that plays dominoes, so she said maybe we can play. I said, “Yeah, we can have a hurricane party.” I was walking on the trail and those ideas were spinning in my head. I texted her a verse and a chorus and she texted me back a verse and a bridge. We were throwing lyrics back and forth and before we knew it we had a song. We got together later and hammered out the music.

Of all the songs on the album, though, “Heart of a Girl” probably has the most unique story behind it.
I wrote that about my parents. They re-met again at one of my gigs. They had been divorced since I was a baby and saw each other at one of my shows and started e-mailing each other and meeting up on weekends. Before I knew it, they were in love. Now, they’ve been remarried for 13 years. It’s pretty amazing. My mom was always this kind of tough, independent “I don’t need anyone, I can do it myself” kind of woman.” Then, when I watched her fall in love with my dad again I saw this soft, innocent girl. It was completely beautiful.

In This Article: Levon Helm

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