Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Robbie Robertson may have written “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but the song would’ve come off as hokey carpetbagger artifice if drummer Levon Helm hadn’t sang it with such gritty earnest. In fact, as the lone American in the Band, the Arkansas native lent every ounce of his ample Southern authenticity to the rest of the members, all Canadians. It was as if merely being in the Band with Helm baptized Robertson, Rick Danko, and the others with a generous splash of moonshine. Helm continues to demonstrate a love and knowledge of all strains of Southern American music, despite having abandoned Turkey Scratch, Ark., for Woodstock, N.Y., some 40 years ago. His last record, 2007’s Grammy-nabbing Dirt Farmer, is as raw and engaging a country folk record as any in recent memory. Electric Dirt, his latest, faces South, too. Helm kicks it off with a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed,” which sounds more like a real country standard than Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s original. And his take on Carter Stanley’s “White Dave” is a mournful masterpiece that sounds like the songs on the slightly superior Dirt Farmer. “Growin’ Trade” is an aggie lament about a good farmer who is forced to start growing America’s biggest cash crop, despite its illegality. Helm teases with an intro that would trick a straight person into thinking it’s a version of the Band’s “The Weight.” The catchy hook, blue-collar vibe, and reverence for marijuana make it sound like the best Neil Young song he’s never sung. Helm teams with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint for the first time since Toussaint arranged the horns for the Band’s classic live gatefold double album from 1972, Rock of Ages. The resulting covers of Randy Newman’s “Kingfish” and Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” sound as rich and engaging as the songs Helm and Toussaint crafted during their primes. Helm’s few missteps on Electric Dirt occur when he gets bluesy. A cover of the Staple Singers’ “Move Along Train” sounds like a selection from a house band at a strip mall blues club. Helm, more than most, has earned his blues credentials by growing up with and later headlining the King Biscuit Blues Festival, but his pair of Muddy Waters covers, “Stuff You Gotta Watch” and “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had,” are tepid tributes to the Father of the Chicago Blues. Still, with all due respect to Don Henley, Phil Collins, and Peter Criss, Helm is the greatest singer-drummer in rock history—he anchored one of the greatest bands ever and whipped throat cancer’s ass. And despite Electric Dirt’s few rare moments of inauthenticity, Helm is still rock’s most authentic man.