Levon Helm - American Son (1980)

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“Levon Helm? You’ve never heard of Levon Helm? How about the Band? Have you heard the Band?”

I was 14 years old, and no, I hadn’t heard of either. I was at a summer camp for nerds, and my ‘writing instructor’ Boyd McBeardyshorts* was doing what all good teachers do – making you feel like you don’t know shit. And back then, I really didn’t. Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix had yet to be discovered; I didn’t know the difference between Wilson Pickett and Wilson Phillips. There was a fat lady in one of them?

Man, was I stupid. Well, maybe not stupid, but you know how they say when you get older, your brain categorizes more? Like, when you were a kid, all you saw were ‘adults,’ but then when you’re grown up, you start to see differences in people – race, class, general level of attractiveness, et cetera. I feel like it’s the opposite with music. When I was a teenager I categorized Van Morrison and The Allman Brothers as “old.” As “stuff that wasn’t cool to listen to.” As, “Dad’s music.” But as I aged, something funny happened. Categories like that began to break down, and I’m finally at the point where there’s basically two – “Good” and “Bad.”

As a teenager, a singer’s voice was the first thing I tuned into. Listening to Bob Dylan for the first time was jarring – why does everyone like this guy so much? He sucks! But when I got home from summer camp full of verve for The Band, my dad played The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. And man…that voice! It sounded like it came from a hundred years ago, or maybe a hundred years in the future. He sang without artifice or effort, it was like stumbling upon the wind or something. And that was the first time I heard Levon Helm.

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The Band became a fixture of my mixtapes for years after that. From Tears of Rage to Ophelia, I listened to it all. Moved on to Robbie Robertson’s solo stuff, and hated it (except for one song – Showdown at Big Sky). Found Levon Helm’s solo stuff…and loved it. Especially his cover of Springsteen’s Atlantic City, which might be my favorite song, um, ever. It started to become clear to me that Levon Helm was in fact, ‘where it’s at.’

My dad’s got a few of Levon’s solo albums, but I chose American Son, mostly because of the cover, which wouldn’t look out of place airbrushed on a T-shirt. After reading his autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire (highly recommended), I learned that this album was never really conceived as a complete album – it’s more of a collection of Helm’s finest studio work during those few years. He had been cast as an actor in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and the record company thought it’d be good to capitalize on his fame. Regardless of its origin, American Son is one of Helm’s best solo albums. My two favorite tracks are below. Enjoy! And let me know what you think in the comments!

[ mp3 ]: Levon Helm – Hurricane

[ mp3 ]: Levon Helm – Dance Me Down Easy

(*probably not his real name)


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