Born, Mark Lavon Helm on May 26th 1940 in Marvell Arkansas, Lavon began playing guitar at the tender age of eight years old. It was about six years later when Lavon realized his true musical calling (the drums), while watching D.J. Fontana jam them behind Elvis Presley. Helm joined Ronnie Hawkins and moved to Canada where they cherry-picked a handful of musicians to fill out what would become The Hawks. Supposedly it was too difficult to pronounce Lavon and the members of the Hawks coined him, Levon, and so it became. Who would’ve thought the letter “a” could be so complex?
The Hawks said farewell to the demanding Hawkins and moved onward with minor success, until Bob Dylan came knocking on their door, searching for a backup band to complete his plugged-in vision, and they obliged. The negative response and constant disapproval from fans wanting the “Old Dylan” back, forced Helm to take a temporary leave of absence. He soon returned to The Band (which they were then calling themselves) and they recorded “Music From Big Pink” while living in a big pink house near Woodstock, New York. The Band, from which Helm is probably most well known, turned out such hits as “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, clearly adopting from Helm’s heartfelt past with the south. The Band broke up in ’76 after “The Last Waltz” and Helm began his solo career.
By 1982, Helm had successfully completed four solo albums and even dabbled in some acting, garnering positive reviews from critics for his performance in the Coal Miner’s Daughter. Years later, in 1996, Helm was diagnosed with cancer of the vocal chords, leaving him with no more than the ability to whisper. Helm discusses his three-pack-a-day smoking habit in a video on www.levonhelm.com, as well as his long bout with the disease, his surgery, his road to recovery and finally his comeback as a musician. Under the most extreme circumstances, he has managed to reinvent himself in a way most others can only dream of doing. There is only one other person I know that’s done a better job of reinventing themselves and that, my friends, is Neil Patrick Harris. Yes, Doogie Howser M.D. Think about it.
Anyways, in describing Levon Helm, I would say his style is made up of country, soul, folk, blues and rock. His voice, now hoarse and raspy, is technically only a portion of what it used to be, but emotionally it sounds stronger than ever. Hopefully, since Helm is very instrumentally talented, he will grace us with, not only drums, but also some harmonica, guitar, bass or mandolin, all of which he is affluent. I am also looking forward to hearing hits from The Band, as well as Levon’s new “throwback to his roots” style music from the Dirt Farmer.
To date, I haven’t had the opportunity to see Levon Helm, which means it will take a MAJOR scheduling conflict to prevent me from doing so at Bonnaroo. If you are interested in maybe seeing Levon Helm and you need to study up: Without piling it on, my suggestion would be to rent The Last Waltz or listen to Music From Big Pink, and check out both Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars and Dirt Farmer. This will give you a 360 degree viewing of the artist and prep you up for what is going to be a soulful, genuinely memorable, Bonnaroo experience!
Levon Helm – Live @ Merlfest 2008