A question overheard in a record store: ‘How do you define Americana?’ The store guy’s answer was simply to put on "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". 'If it’s got Levon Helm’s voice on it, that’s Americana.'
The story starts in Arkansas in 1958, with Levon joining Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks, drumming and singing his way from Texas to Canada and back again. Levon was the core member around which The Hawks (Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson) coalesced. They eventually left Ronnie, and went out as Levon & The Hawks, a tough, raucous R&B band, before Bob Dylan pulled them into his orbit for the 1965 electric tour. They emerged as The Band.
Music From Big Pink stunned the music world in 1968, with Levon’s voice and drums leading on "The Weight". It was followed by The Band (the Brown Album, 1969) widely regarded as their best work. Then came Stage Fright (1970). The New Year concert Rock of Ages (1972) is one of the greatest live albums. We have Cahoots (1971), Moondog Matinee (1973), another Dylan tour for Before The Flood (1974) and Northern Lights Southern Cross (1975) before The Band bowed out at Thanksgiving 1976, a show which became the film and album, The Last Waltz. Remaining material became Islands (1977).
Levon assembled his favourite musicians as The RCO All Stars, and produced the first of four solo albums. Two of them were entitled Levon Helm (1977 & 1978). American Son (1980) should have become a New Country classic. The Legend of Jesse James was a concept album in 1980, with Levon in the role of Jesse. The Band reformed in 1983 leading to two live video concerts, filmed in Vancouver and Japan. Movie roles came on the scene, with appearances in Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Right Stuff and The Shooter as well as tours as Danko-Helm. The two played with Ringo Starr’s All Star Band in 1989.
The reformed Band produced three 1990s albums, Jericho (1993), High On The Hog (1996) and Jubilation (1998). They had to play Band songs on tour, but they also played half new material. This was no oldies act. Levon on "Atlantic City" was a standout.
In the 2000s, the Midnight Rambles commenced at Levon Helm Studios, more affectionately known as "The Barn". Levon had had throat cancer, and for a while only drummed, with guest singers. The voice recovered and in a late flowering, Levon returned to his roots for 2007’s Dirt Farmer which won the first of three Grammy Awards (Best Traditional Folk Album, 2008). It’s probably the best solo album by a Band member. Electric Dirt won Best Americana album in 2010, followed by Ramble At The Ryman with the same award in 2012.
Levon was the drummer of musicians’ dreams yet he said he had never played a drum solo. He also played mandolin, guitar, bass and mouth harp. His signature singing voice was unmatched, and above all his energy, enthusiasm and sheer spirit made him the heart and soul of every musical ensemble he performed with. - Peter Viney