It’s the smile. That’s what really gets you. Almost as much as the incredible songs. Or the fluid, flawless musicianship. Or even the coarse, honey-ladled grit of the voice. The smile is wide, full, bright. It floods the big, log-walled room with pure, dazzling luminescence, like a signal that the angels are about to appear from on high. And the smile is contagious, finding itself mirrored across the faces of everyone else in the space—the audience, the musicians, even the scrambling, focused soundmen.
The smile belongs to Levon Helm, one of this country’s most precious cultural treasures, who tonight at one of the Midnight Ramble sessions that take place a few times a month at the erstwhile Band member’s Woodstock home and studio is doing exactly what he was put—and kept—on this Earth to do: make great American music. Some of the greatest American music that ever was, in fact. And anyone who knows about the difficult life valleys Helm, 68, has triumphed over in the last few years, and about the glorious heights he’s now experiencing through his career’s ongoing renaissance, can’t help but be awed by the deep portent of the man’s seemingly insurmountable grin. Which probably just makes them smile all the more themselves, really.
“Well, sir, when you have everything taken away, you’re just so glad to get it back. Which is what I’ve been so very fortunate enough to do,” says the humble but hearty native Arkansan. “It just makes playing so much more joyful. Every opportunity to play just means so much more than the last one.”
Helm’s years with The Band are well chronicled elsewhere, perhaps no better than in his 1993 autobiography This Wheel’s on Fire. In the book he talks about the lean, vagabond times of the group’s early period, when the members were “living the music.” But since those days, his life has echoed the music in other, more catastrophic ways, ways that recall the tragedy-laced folk ballads of his Southern youth.
The first blow came in 1986, 10 years after The Band’s demise, when Helm’s good friend and band mate, pianist Richard Manuel, took his own life. Next, in 1991, a fire at the beloved “barn” studio Helm had built in 1976 burned the structure almost to the ground. And when Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1996 it looked as though, if the disease didn’t kill him, the voice of the man who sang lead and played drums and mandolin on “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Rag Mama Rag,” and other classics would be silenced forever. But the heartbreak didn’t end there: In 1999, Band bassist Rick Danko passed away at the age of 56. With limited funds thanks largely to unfairly structured royalty deals and unable to do the film and voiceover work that had helped to pay the bills, Helm found himself in the precarious position of having to balance the costs of rebuilding his home and workplace with those of the medications and procedures needed to save his voice—and his life.
Understandably, he chose to put most of his available cash into the latter. And, after surgery and 28 intensive radiation treatments at Sloan-Kettering in Manhattan, not only has Helm beaten the cancer but his voice has regained “about 70 percent” of its famed knotty-pine majesty. “It still might take a notion to go south on me some nights, but it’s getting better than it was,” he says. When told that in some ways he sounds even better than he does on some of his older records, that even Tom Waits might be happy to have the same level of gruff character in his voice, the singer laughs. “Yeah, well on some gigs I wish mine had a little less character, thank you!”
But with Helm’s health back in the fold, there was still the mortgage company to satisfy. While in recovery mode he needed to get his voice back in shape and pay down his debts, but touring was out of the question. So instead of taking the show to the fans, he took a stroke of inspiration from the freewheeling rent parties of his childhood and invited the fans to come hang out at his house. Since 2004, Helm has opened part of his home to the public for the now famous and intimate “parlor sessions” known as his Midnight Rambles. Facilitated by a large crew that calls itself Team Levon, the medicine showlike events sell out weeks in advance and have featured surprise guest appearances by Dr. John, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Medeski, Martin, and Wood, Nick Lowe, Allen Toussaint, and others.