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Published: 2012/05/25
by Mike Greenhaus

Levon Helm and Larry Campbell: Building A Band

Photo by David Piacitelli

With the Levom Helm Band—just like with The Band—you rotate who gets to sing and be in the spotlight.

Levon: Yeah, it’s just a lot more fun. Pass the microphone around. I don’t care who it is, you don’t want to hear ‘em all night. Ray’s gone…if it ain’t Ray Charles.

Dirt Farmer was much more steeped in traditional Americana than Electric Dirt, which feels like more of a rock or counter/folk-rock record. What led to the change?

Levon: [When we did Dirt Farmer ], I think it was mainly to see if I could. I felt comfortable. We started talking, Amy and I, when it looked like I was gonna get my voice back—I would love to try and attempt it. And we started talking about all those old songs, family songs, back porch songs, just sittin’ around. That was a comfortable place to start. Those were the first songs that I ever heard. I learned harmony parts by singing those songs. It was a good startin’ place. This time, that kinda proved that we could do it. Everybody really contributed to it to arrangement wise. Steve Bernstein…

Sex Mob’s a great band.

Larry: Fabulous, yeah. The Dirt Farmer record, when we started that, there was no goal in mind. The only goal was, let’s play some songs and see what happens

Levon: Make some music.

Larry: Yeah, because it’s fun to do it. That was the goal because we just love making music. Let’s do this. It was Amy and Levon, that concept of getting back to where he came from. I thought it was just brilliant. She asked me to co-produce and it was a total labor of love. There was no label at the time, there was no budget, there was nothing, no clock to watch. It was just, ‘let’s try this and let’s try this’. That innocence and naiveté is gone. You can only do that once, cuz now we do have a label, now there are time limits, now there are budgets that we have to think about.

Levon: That predicament, being in that particular place. I think that’s done as much as anything for us, building our band. We really built a musical outfit, not that we are money whipping each other.

Larry: It was all for the love of doing it. That first record, in many ways, turned out to be a lot more successful than we even thought about.

Levon: But, just to be able to do it…

Larry: So, now with the second record, that’s automatic pressure because you gotta try and least equal…

Levon: But, it’s easier in a way because this time we knew we could.

Larry: Yeah.

Levon: We knew we could. We didn’t have to worry about my voice going south.

It must be the confidence of being on the road…for a whole year all over the place.

Levon and Larry: Yeah.

It’s like “We know we can do it” now you just have to go out and do it.

Levon: That’s it exactly.

Electric Dirt sounds like that firm Band sound. Larry, you’re working on an album as well?

Larry: Teresa and I are working on our solo thing together. Which is basically the same musicians, Levon is on drums, Brian on bass and Amy. We’ll probably do the same configuration on Amy’s record. It’s a great place to be.

The rhythm is strong, but the singer is different. Is it going to be more soul?

Levon: It’s more country. Teresa’s a really good country singer.

She is Tennessee. That’s her world.

Larry: What’s cool about Amy and Teresa singing with Levon is Amy’s thing is more the soul side and Teresa’s more the country side and he’s right in the middle of that.

Levon: That was what happened on Dirt Farmer. We weren’t expecting it. The sound that Teresa and Amy were able to find with their voices was great. It was brand new.

I don’t know when I first saw them sing together, but it sounded like they had been singing together for years and years. It was surprising that you told me it was ’05 in that short time they were able to harmonize like that.

Levon: That’s what it’s been like with them.

Larry: They’ve got a good blend of voices.

It’s a nice image with the two female singers too.

Larry: That contrast is great.

For the new album, did you play the songs before you recorded?

Larry: Not really. Levon’s theory was ‘Let’s cut this stuff and we’ll figure it out later’.

Levon: See if it adds up. For example, “Kingfish” was one. Every now and then in the old days I would get about half tight and I’d pull out “Kingfish” just to break the pattern. And I’d forgotten all about it. And Amy said you should do “Kingfish.” We were sitting around trying to figure out what to do next. And we said, “Okay let’s try it.” And, damn, if it didn’t turn out to be a whole lotta fun and it gave us an opportunity to get with Allen Toussaint. And the horns, hallelujah. I wish we had two of ‘em.

He’s another person who’s getting his second dues.

Levon: He’s one of the best we got. What a player.

[In terms of Electric Dirt ], keep your fingers crossed. And we’ll do the old shotgun, see what sticks. Fire both barrels and see what sticks. It’s fun to play with each other anyway. This has been the best thing we’ve stumbled into. It’s a whole lot better when we don’t have to go out and crank a bus and load everything up. But that’s what you get paid for. You play for free. But, damn, traveling and arguing with the guy in the parking lot…god ol’ mighty. A lot of people to put up with.

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