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On The String: Amy Helm Rambles Toward Her Own Light On A Second LP

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Lisa MacIntosh
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Band members step out and go solo all the time. Amy Helm has done something more profound as an inheritor of the spirit of The Band, which made history at Big Pink, which partnered with Bob Dylan and which said farewell with The Last Waltz. Its drummer/singer Levon Helm left a vast roots music legacy, and daughter Amy has not just taken care of it, she’s inhabited and developed it into her own groove-laden gospel rock.

 

 

This Too Shall Light is Helm’s second solo album, a collection of ten songs she found and shaped with the album’s producer Joe Henry. The acclaimed musician had a plan for keeping the sessions loose and fresh.

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“I was nervous because I hadn’t sung the songs," Helm said. "Joe had specifically asked me not to sing the songs too much. He didn’t want me to get my voice around them or get too familiar with them. So it was really all of us hunting down the song in the moment.”

Helm’s intuitions in such matters are to be trusted. She spent years as a professional harmony singer. She formed Olabelle, one of the most respected neo-folk bands of recent decades. And she sang at and nurtured Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble barn concerts in Woodstock, seeing him through throat cancer and a long recovery and comeback. She co-produced Levon’s signature late career album Dirt Farmer.

In Episode 72 of The String, Helm talks about approaching a new phase as a solo artist:
 

“It was a desire and an intuition that built over time after doing Olabelle and singing in my dad’s band for ten years, the Midnight Ramble Band, and learning kind of a different curve. That was a loud rock and roll band and you had to learn to sing with the band and project and deliver a whole different set of stories. Toward the end of that, I started to feel like I might have something to say.”

…about co-producing Levon Helm’s comeback Dirt Farmer album, which won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2008.
 

“My dad had been talking about making an album like that for a long time. He and I had been having a lot of conversations over the years about pulling all of those songs that he grew up on - ‘Little Bird’ and ‘Blind Child’ and ‘Single Girl’ - and telling a story. And then rounding out that story. A big part of his musical influence lies in those songs, which are a different genre than a lot of stuff we were doing on the Ramble. I felt confident to co-produce that with Larry because I knew what it should be and what it could be.”

…about the role of the Americana Music Association in preserving and protecting traditional folk music:

“I think that every musician and every genre has something extraordinary to hear and learn from. And if Americana stays open to making sure each part of this spectrum is being revealed and having a light shone on it then we’re in good shape.”