Dirt Farmer, by the Band’s Levon Helm, is a miracle of sorts. By Helm’s own admission, the last few years were not kind to him. They saw the loss of collaborator and friend Rick Danko, a fire that gutted his barn studio, and throat cancer that robbed him of the ability to speak and sing. Rather than give in to despair, Helm turned to “the power of prayer and good wishes” to rebuild his studio and reclaim his voice. On Dirt Farmer, Helm turns his distinctive vocal style to a collection of traditional ballads and more recent bluegrass and country numbers. The result is personal and nostalgic, as if when given a second chance, Helm has decided to record the songs that are most important to him.
From the moment Helm’s familiar twang intones the first lines of “False-Hearted Lover Blues,” Dirt Farmer takes off and exists in that timeless place he helped to create in the Band. The older songs blend well with the more recent numbers; Helm and his menagerie of backing musicians use bluegrass instrumentation throughout the album and ably blur the lines between traditional pieces and modern songs by the likes of Steve Earle and Paul Kennerley. More important, Helm imbues every song on Dirt Farmer with the simple authenticity of someone who has lived with his music longer than most of his audience and for better or worse. Dirt Farmer is drawn from the fertile soil of Levon Helm’s talent and soul.