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Published: 2012/05/25
by Mike Greenhaus

Levon Helm and Larry Campbell: Building A Band

I really appreciate the concept of a collective of musicians. Everyone has a chance to be the frontman and then the support musician. In a way, it is almost like The Band was back in the day: a group of musicians without one central leader. It looks like it evolved so naturally.

Larry: It did. And it’s ideal. This is why you play music.

Levon: Right, that’s it.

Larry: We’re all here because of Levon, but we make it so he doesn’t have to be under pressure all the time. Instead of pressure, when we get to do what we wanna do, we look at it as opportunity.

Levon: You get to play more kinds of music by being with everybody else. Look at someone like [keyboardist] Brian Mitchell, who comes somewhere out of left field. And it’s fun. It makes everybody keep their chops up.

When it came to making Electric Dirt, which is a sequel in a way to the more acoustic Dirt Farmer, was it a conscious decision to move toward a more electric sound and represent a different style? Or did it evolve naturally in the studio?

Levon: I think it was just more of what we sound like. If you had both of them, Electric Dirt and Dirt Farmer, they would be good bookends for the last five years of what we’ve built as a band and what we sound like on our first two records. We’ve got almost a half a record with Larry and Theresa. We’ve got a third of a record done with Amy. That’s the good thing that the band should be able to do for itself, foster those extra musical endeavors.

Larry: I always say that Levon is the guy that you can do any style of true American music with complete conviction. Levon’s the guy you can do that with. We wanted to make this record a little broader than the last one. The last one was traditional music and modern traditional. And this one rocks a little bit more. There’s a couple of gospel tunes. A couple of country things. A couple of straight ahead blues tunes too. Just trying to be broader to represent what we can do with Levon.

With the Ramble, you guys have a Grammy for traditional folk, but you guys are doing New Orleans, rock music, a lot of different stuff. American music is a great way to describe all the sound. Of all the songs, “Tennessee Jed”, why choose that song?

Levon: Larry wanted to do that one.

Larry: I’ve been working with Phil [Lesh] for a couple of years and Teresa [Williams, his wife] has been, too. She and I were doing “Tennessee Jed.” Last summer, we did a couple of shows together, Levon and Phil. They come from the same era. What the Dead did and what The Band did were two ends of a specific spectrum. It just struck me, “Wouldn’t it be great to hear Levon doing a Jerry Garcia tune?” And I was trying to think of which one and then it hit me— “Tennessee Jed.” They never did a studio version of that. Jerry did it. It sounded great. He sounded like a guy who had a lot of respect for this particular genre and this guy was doing something to honor that. Levon sounds like he is that thing. It’s really interesting to hear that tune. And I thought that it was perfect. It fits like a glove. Lyrically it’s a lot of fun and he does that stuff kind of great.

It sounds like it was written for you.

Levon: It’s great to do kind of like a tribute to the Grateful Dead. It feels great to do it.

From your perspective, was there a specific point since the first Ramble in ’04 when this assortment of musicians felt like a band ?

Levon: We tried to give it as little a direction as possible and just let it evolve—and that’s the way that it happened. We didn’t have to join anything or be initiated. We’re all rhythm section guys. So we understand the [dynamic]. We all know that together we can do what we really want to do. When we have to we take off and try to make Dylan or whoever we’re playing with sound musical.

It is as if Larry is part of the scene’s house band, backing all these different musicians.

Levon: Larry’s a workaholic anyways, so it suited him fine. He’ll just play all night. Between the sets Larry just sits down and relaxes before the other guys come on.

How did you two meet originally?

Levon: Gosh, I can’t remember.

Larry: We met at the Lone Star in New York many years ago, like 1980 something. I used to play with a bunch of different bands, with [Texas country musician] Kinky Friedman originally. Then with Doug Sahm. I was sort of a house musician then. Bands would come in that needed a steel player or fiddle player and they’d call me to do it. I was playing with Buddy Miller a bunch then, too. We would open for The Band every once in a while. I remember hanging with Rick [Danko] and Richard [Manuel] at Don Imus’ place a couple of times. That was an experience. And I seem to remember Levon being there, but he doesn’t remember being there.

Levon: Very possible I was. We could both be right.

Larry: That’s where we first met, but we didn’t really play together.

Levon: [We also seemed to be] sitting-in together at different spots. Jimmy Vivino’s birthday. Those kind of occasions.

Larry: When I left Dylan, Levon called me about a month later to say, “Come on, let’s make some music.”

Levon: Actually, I called him the minute it happened. [Laughter.]

Larry: It was pretty quick.

Levon: I told him to “come on over.” I couldn’t hardly talk for laughing.

Larry: It turned out to be a really cool thing.

Levon: Well, you know, playing with Bob is a job. Any job is a good job.

Larry: That’s true.

Levon: But, you gotta admit though, being on your own you play twice as much music.

Larry: That’s right.

Levon: That kind of a job just cuts off everything else. You don’t have time to entertain any other kind of opportunity.

Larry: When you play with Bob, I think it’s justified, but it’s all about Bob. That’s what it’s about. When he first started doing his thing he was never better than just him and his guitar. And when The Band was backing him up, they became that acoustic guitar, but it was still Bob. Playing with him, that’s what it has to be and that’s all cool. But, you don’t have the opportunity to explore what you can do musically. Here, we all get that opportunity.

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