Rock legend Levon Helm (1941-2012) - the drummer and a lead singer for The Band - is batting 1,000 at the Grammys. Last month, when his "Ramble at the Ryman" won Best Americana Album, he made it three in a row - three nominations, three wins - following Grammy Awards for his two previous albums, "Dirt Farmer" (2007) and "Electric Dirt" (2009). Not bad for a 71-year-old survivor of throat cancer, who had once lost his voice completely.
Right up until his passing in April 2012, Levon Helm presided over what he called "midnight rambles" - concerts in his Woodstock, N.Y. barn, where he was surrounded by musical friends and family, including his daughter, singer Amy Helm. His voice may be raspy, but his energetic drumming and high-beam smile could warm the coldest winter night. Following rousing versions of "The Weight" and "Ophelia," Helm invited Marco Werman into his house for after midnight conversation, which would turn out to be one of his last interviews.
Like Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, there is something fundamentally authentic about Levon Helm. His music always felt real and if you ever read his autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire, you know he doesn’t flinch from describing his long, rambunctious ride.
As Levon explained, these midnight rambles - which have become a tremendous success featuring a who’s who of guest stars – began as “rent parties” organized by his manager Barbara O’Brien to pay the mortgage on his farm and cover his medical bills. Weed and whiskey were replaced by cancer treatments.
Levon Helm was a survivor. A man who beat the odds. A true gentleman. And even up until the end, he could still drum like a demon for two hours straight.
What was most important to Levon was keeping his American roots music alive, and passing it on. Lots of new groups seem to be tuning in – from the Decemberists to Mumford & Sons and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
We're tempted to describe Levon as a lion in winter, but as you’ll see in this interview with Marco Werman, he’s more like a Cheshire cat with that incredible smile and a wry perspective on his life. Don't miss his rendition of a Turkish Army Band toward the end of this conversation.
Our Quick Hits team was directed by John MacGibbon with Andy Bowley as director of photography.
Levon Helm’s website