As the drummer and one of the three wonderful singers in the Band, Marvell, Arkansas, native Levon Helm came as close to true greatness as any rock-and-roll artist ever has. On that group's first two albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band -- as the lead voice on "Up On Cripple Creek" and the monumental "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and one of the voices on "The Weight" and the still-visionary "We Can Talk" -- Helm contributed to music as deep and durable as anything in popular music. Music as important as the Beatles and Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.
But these days Helm may be in a category all his own: The only truly major rock-and-roll figure to have devoted himself entirely to the rather self-contained modern blues scene. But Helm -- who's scheduled to be part of the Handy Awards house band and play at Saturday night's BluesAid concert in addition to his two-night stint at B.B. King's -- sees it as a natural transition. "For me, it's where I'm from," Helm says during a phone interview from his Woodstock, New York, home. "I grew up in Phillips County, Arkansas, where the big radio stars were Sonny Boy Williamson and the King Biscuit Boys. That's what I've always loved and cared about. In the Band we played a rock-and-roll-flavored music, I guess, but it had a lot of country feel to it and some blues feeling that I probably brought to it. But now I'm doing what I really want to do. The blues has always been the most fun to play and it's what I've grown up with all my life, so it's a natural thing to me."
For the last three or four years, Helm has been mentoring a younger group of musicians in the Barnburners. Helm, who recovered from throat cancer a few years ago, no longer sings. In the Barnburners he sticks to the drums and leaves the vocals to his 30-year-old daughter Amy Helm, who also plays piano in the band. The other Barnburners are harp player/singer Chris O'Leary, bassist Frankie Ingrao, and Pat O'Shea on guitar. Blues fans in town for the Handy Awards certainly won't be disappointed by the Barnburners' repertoire, according to Helm. "We play blues," he says. "We play Muddy Waters. Sonny Boy Williamson. It's all Delta blues. We play about half covers, half originals, but it's all blues-based music."
In addition to mentoring the Barnburners, Helm has been involved with some other blues projects. He played on a record by Ronnie Earl that's due out this fall and recently worked on a Louisiana Red project that was recorded in Woodstock. Helm also says he hopes to be involved in upcoming projects by James Cotton and Charlie Musselwhite.
If the blues is forever and always (and justly) thought of as the music of Mississippi, then Helm's Handy Week role serves as a reminder of the perhaps under-recognized blues heritage of Helm's beloved Arkansas. Helm agrees that the state may not always get its musical due. "That probably could be said," Helm says. "But I think that the King Biscuit Blues Festival [in Helena] does a lot to bring attention to Arkansas. Now if only we could get that Louis Jordan festival in Brinkley going."
Jump blues pioneer Jordan is far from a household name these days, but for a state that produced Sonny Boy Williamson, Johnny Cash, and Al Green, Jordan may still be the most important of all. "You know, Jordan was from there in Brinkley and he's one of the greatest musical heroes of all time," Helm says. "Almost every bit of music you can hear today was influenced by Louis Jordan and his band. That was probably the best band on the road, at least until Ray Charles came around. He might be one of the most important American musicians ever. I'd have given my front seat in the poorhouse to have seen them play."
Helm may live in Woodstock now, but he still has family around Marvell and still considers the tiny East Arkansas community home, talking up the hamburgers at Ray's Kool Freeze and the milkshakes at Anderson's Drug Store (both the best in the state, Helm says).
But one subject Helm isn't so fond of is Capitol Records and its control of the Band's legacy, a cash cow that Helm says he no longer receives a penny of royalties from. Capitol has recently reissued the entire Band catalog, but Helm says he had no role in that. "Believe it or not," Helm says, "they never even sent me a copy. I don't know any of those people anymore and they don't know me. They hate me, I hope, because I damn sure hate them. They're a bunch of thieves."
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.
B.B. King's Blues Club
11 p.m. Thursday, May 24, and 10 p.m. Friday, May 25