Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: Woodshedding at Woodstock
Editor’s Note: We are expanding this feature for this week only, to help call attention to Record Store Day on Saturday. Independent record stores are dying on the vine, go out on Saturday and show ‘em that you love them by purchasing some vinyl.
Today we travel about 1,500 miles to the hamlet of Woodstock, New York, comfortably situated in the rustic Hudson Valley north of the Big Apple. Now this isn’t the place where the big Woodstock festival took place (that was in Bethel, about 40 miles to the northeast) – the town of Woodstock is a haven for artists, musicians and the like. One of the town’s most famous residents is Levon Helm, best known as the drummer for the Band.
The stories are rock legend: about the Band backing Dylan as he went “electric” in the mid-1960s, how a discouraged Helm quit, how the group reunited with Dylan in Woodstock, then finally how Helm rejoined and recorded the landmark Music From Big Pink. By 1975, Levon Helm was a big-time rock star. He had just married a young lady he first met while working in L.A., and he moved back to bucolic Woodstock to make his permanent home. On his 20-acre homesite, Helm built a huge timber-framed barn with only wooden pegs and locally quarried bluestone. Overlooking a bass-filled lake and shadowed by Overlook Mountain, Helm’s barn was to double as a recording studio.
The studio was nearly complete in 1975 when Helm welcomed his first client, Chicago blues great Muddy Waters. Helm and his business partner songwriter/producer Henry Glover invited some of the A-list musicians to sit in on the sessions with Waters and his touring band. The result was The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album, released in 1975. Among the musicians on the album were guitarist Bob Margolin and pianist Willie “Pinetop” Perkins from Muddy’s band, blues-harp monster Paul Butterfield and hot session guitarist Fred Carter as well as Helm and Garth Hudson from the Band.
The album kicks off with “Why Are People Like That,” written by Louisiana singer/songwriter Bobby Charles (who was also living in Woodstock at the time). Waters wrote five songs his own bad self, including “Born With Nothing” (on which Muddy plays a wicked slide guitar) and “Going Down To Main Street” (with Garth Hudson on accordion). The accordion wasn’t known as a blues instrument (outside of Clifton Chenier’s neighborhood, of course) but Hudson turns it into a blistering blues tool, particularly on “Caledonia,” a cover of the hot Louis Jordan tune.
When it came out, many people felt the Woodstock album was one of Muddy Waters’ most relaxed and swinging records. It certainly had a more “rural” sound than the other records Muddy had been cutting for Chess Records. Despite that, it would turn out to be Waters’ last album for Chess – despite the fact that it won the 1975 Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording. Waters would repay the favor to Levon by appearing with the Band at their “Last Waltz” farewell concert in 1976. Muddy would of course make a roaring comeback to his blistering Chicago sound with 1977’s Hard Again cut with Johnny Winter, and he would remain a huge concert draw until his death in 1983.
In 1977 Helm would unlock the door to his barn-studio for a big party with a bunch of his musician buddies, and eventually that became Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars, his first solo album, from 1977. The musicians on this one included Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn and Booker T. Jones (all from Booker T. and the MGs), Dr. John, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson from the Band, Paul Butterfield, Fred Carter and a crack horn section.
This is down-home R&B done in a casual, unhurried Southern groove – the kind of stuff you’d expect to come out of Memphis or Muscle Shoals in that era. However, the album opener “Washer Woman” lopes out of the gate with a Dr. John piano figure straight from Bourbon Street. The cover of Earl King’s “Sing Sing Sing (Let’s Make A Better World) continues the Crescent City groove but “The Tie That Binds” gets down and dirty with one of Levon’s bluesiest vocals. “Milk Cow Boogie” settles into that familiar blues-rock shuffle with some tasty horn fills and “Blues So Bad” (the only song here written by Levon) has a kind of funky Band vibe.
To promote the album, Helm and his All Stars played some memorable live dates but the record ultimately stalled in the lower reaches of the charts. Levon continued his solo career and tried his hand at acting – he even earned an Academy Award nomination in 1980 for his first film role, in Coal Miner’s Daughter. He joined the reformed Band (minus Robbie Robertson) in 1983 and toured with them until Rick Danko’s death closed that chapter in 1999. Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, Levon’s most recent solo albums, are critical successes and the latter won a Grammy Award in 2009 for Best Americana Album.
Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in the 1990s, and after extensive treatment and surgery he seems to have bounced back with most of his singing voice. To pay his medical bills, Helm created the Midnight Ramble monthly concerts at his studio in Woodstock. You can buy a ticket to attend one here – although I haven’t yet been to one, it’s supposedly a great time. Levon will celebrate his 70th birthday this year, and he will be one of the headliners at the Mountain Jam this June. Expect a rousing tribute to a great American music legend. Long live Levon Helm!
Listen: “Milk Cow Boogie”
Listen: “Sing Sing Sing (Let’s Make A Better World)”
YouTube: “Washer Woman”