The first time I met Levon Helm was backstage at the Ridgefield Playhouse (in Ridgefield, CT). I was coming off a couple of shows near there, and he'd just played Newport. Justin Guip, Levon's longtime engineer and confidant, knew I was in Connecticut and that I had the night off. And so he called to suggest that I come by and hang out with the crew for awhile.
Shortly after I'd arrived, Levon surfaced with an armful of photos and a black Sharpie. Before worrying about load-in, or concerning himself with sound-check, the man was already preparing to meet his people; to greet them with that solar smile, honest handshake, and those opaque, patient eyes. Within the first fifteen seconds of observing him, I knew that Levon Helm was the most human musical genius I would ever encounter.
I saw him again in late summer of 2011, while recording my album Last Bird Home at his barn in Woodstock. I had recruited Garth and Maud Hudson, Tommy Ramone, Larry Campbell, Gabriel Butterfield and nearly a dozen more musicians for the sessions and by the third day; I was coming a bit unglued (playing producer to my first "big" project). Levon approached me near the front door and asked how it was going. I just opened my eyes wide and threw back a full cup of coffee, as he smiled and half whispered "breathe".
"Main thing is to have fun with it. And if it's not working, just walk away from it for awhile. And you do know that lake back there's stocked with some real good fish, don't you?" Of course I forgot all about the session in that moment. I forgot about the players, the clock, the deadlines... and I wasn't standing in front of a Grammy-winning studio with a living legend anymore. I was being pacified by my Papaw Earl, somewhere near Little Mud, KY. And all I had to do was "breathe".
I was reminded once again of how very human Mr. Levon Helm was, with the news of his passing on Thursday. Even as he fought cancer over the years, I never expected him to die. Levon couldn't die. He was the spirit of American music- the father figure to every kid with a voice and a backbeat. And yet here we are; speaking of him in past tense, which must mean it really has happened.
Our culture loves to enshrine celebrities when they pass. But this is different. This is a true human loss. And while it's accurate to say that there'll never be another Levon Helm in the world of music, it's clear to me today that there will never be another Levon, period. The musical genius will live on in the recordings though. And the human being, in the hearts and minds of the many he touched over all those decades.
HEAR IT FIRST ~ Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us
April 18, 2012
**Mercyland is no longer available for streaming**
by Kim Ruehl, for FolkAlley.com
The relationship between music and spirituality has a history about as long as human beings have been capable of giving voice to their beliefs. In fact, there's reason to believe music has had a place in spiritual practice since before any of the contemporary religions even took root.
Conversely, modern music would likely have little place without the various tenets of faith. But, whether it's faith in god or love or humankind, music is evidence of the persistence of the human spirit. Maybe that's why so many predominantly secular artists occasionally perform and record spiritual songs at some point in their career. When an artist sings a song about faith in something larger than themselves, it doesn't necessarily mean they're looking to make a testimony about their religious beliefs. It's simply a moment for them to tap into whatever holds the key to their creativity.
And so it is that a handful of today's finest folk and roots music artists - The Civil Wars, Shawn Mullins, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Buddy Miller, and Emmylou Harris among them - have gathered to record an album titled Mercyland - Hymns for the Rest of Us.
This is not a collection of tent-raising revivalist spirituals, though there are certainly plenty of those in the folk tradition. You're unlikely to find on this disc a clear and determined statement about Jesus or God or any specific Biblical lessons. (Except for North Mississippi All-Stars' "If I Was Jesus," which takes the phrase "What would Jesus do?" in an interesting direction.) Nor, for that matter, will you find lessons from the Torah, the Qu'ran, the Tao Te Ching, etc.
What you will find are existential spiritual explorations about things like life and death, love, struggle, dissent, and peace. In fact, Shawn Mullins may carry the crux of the album's motivation in his song, "Give God the Blues," which comes up second on the disc:
God don't hate the Muslims
God don' hate the Jews
God don't hate the Christians
But we all give God the blues.
God don't hate the atheists
The Buddhists, or the Hindus.
God loves everybody, but we all give God the blues.
Like the rest of the album, Mullins' song neither confirms nor negates anyone's religious practices. Mercyland acknowledges faith, love, and mercy are not merely features of religious doctrine, but are human compulsions toward which we're all pulled. Regardless of any community's relationship with God, there is always common ground in music.
Sharing its title with a bluegrass tune, Take Me for Longing is a new romance novella from Felice Fox that makes good use of the world of traditional music. The story revolves around Nic, the mandolin player for the Taylors, who has been disgraced by a thinly veiled character in a romance written by a young woman he met - and entranced - at a summer festival years earlier. They didn't have a relationship then, but sparks fly when they meet again after Nic's escape to California.
In her book, Fox has created in Nic a man who has been pushed to the outside of his own family band by the perception of an event that never really took place. Bluegrass is an unusual genre that includes multi-generational family bands - many of which (like the Taylors) have built a reputation as a conservative, family-centered voice. This is what slips Nic up. If he played bass for Kiss, no one would care if he marriage fell apart. In fact, he would probably be flattered to find his way into a romance novel.
When Nic drives his (rather posh) tour bus to California to be closer to his ex and his son, he runs into June, the woman who wrote the offending book. And sparks fly! June loves bluegrass (there are lots of scenes of people jamming on the beach) and she feels equally bad about breaking up the Taylors with her fiction.
Fox knows her music - bluegrass is never treated as an oddity, she obviously is a fan. One of the book's themes is the connection between June and Nic, but another is the conflict growing out of the past and future of bluegrass. Two more books are planned in the series. WARNING: there are several scenes of explicit sexy sexiness (if you've read a romance novel, you know what I mean). This would be the perfect book to read between sets at Telluride this summer. As long as you're not part of a super-conservative family band.
One of the greatest things about folk music is ability of audiences to actually grow fonder of artists as they mature. Even though we love younger musicians who are embracing traditional music, new releases from our favorites can really get us excited. June Tabor's new album with Oysterband, Ragged Kingdom, serves up a collection of songs that struck a nerve with fans and earned the collaboration three BBC Folk Awards (with another for Tabor for Folk Singer of the Year). The music is like a fine wine - it only gets better with age.
The Chieftains are celebrating 40 years of performing and they have never been known for letting grass grow under their feet. Their new release, Voices of Ages, welcomes many musicians that weren't even close to being born at the time the band came together for its first performance. Guests include the Punch Brothers, the Decemberists, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Imelda May, the Secret Sisters, Low Anthem and the Civil Wars.
Not every band is lucky to make it to 40 years. Little Blue Egg was released under the shingle of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer but, as most people know, Dave Carter (the impossibly talented songwriter) left this world in 2002 at age 49 - much too early. His partner Tracy Grammer discovered a cache of unreleased demo tapes and these new songs keep alive a great folk duo, even if it is for just a little while longer.
Woody Guthrie also died much too young. In his 55 years, he forever changed the musical landscape of America. He captured the truth in folk music and left behind one of the greatest artistic legacies of the 20th century. A group of contemporary musicians - Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker, Yim Yames - have created New Multitudes. The collection (initiated by Nora Guthrie) adds tunes to Woody's early lyrics in honor of Guthrie's centenary.
More music added to the library from across the generations:
Getting up early is the most counter intuitive thing you can ask a musician to do, especially during the madness that is SXSW. Not only did The Punch Brothers and Trampled By Turtles get up early, but they absolutely brought the house down when they joined my home station, KUT Austin, in the Four Seasons' ballroom during this year's SXSW and played to upwards of a thousand die hard music fans.
As you'll see from the videos below, a little artful lighting made sure everybody forgot that it was 8 AM, and that those are coffee cups, not highballs.
(A big thank you to KUT's Storyboard team for their video expertise and KUT engineers Seph Price, John Craig, Brian Urban and Jim Reese for excellent sound.)