If there’s a greater, more venerable voice in rock than the reedy pipes of Levon Helm, bring it on. Ever since his well-known hits with The Band (“The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”), Helm’s distinctly derelict voice—once described as “a rustic yawp”—has been an endearing anomaly.
Dirt Farmer, Helm’s first solo effort in 25 years, recaptures every ounce of that unmistakably coarse croon. There’s some wear, of course—the 67-year-old was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998—but much like the warts of Johnny Cash’s posthumous American V, they only add to the album’s rugged spirit and charm.
In some ways, it’s as if Helm never disappeared. “False Hearted Lover Blues” is a rambunctious opener—a front porch, full band, boot-stomping romp that sounds like it was recorded in his prime. But the rest of the album takes a toned-down, folk-heavy approach as Helm eases into songs accompanied by mandolin, fiddle and acoustic guitar. The subtler tracks still soar, especially when Helm harmonizes with his daughter, Amy, of Ollabelle fame. “Wide River to Cross,” for instance, provides a perfect heartbreaking close to an exceptional return album. (Skylar Browning)