I first heard Levon Helm's voice in 1968, on The Band's album Music From Big Pink. Ray Wylie Hubbard turned me on to the record when I came home to Dallas from college that summer. I was immediately drawn into a sound that was unlike anything I'd ever heard. "The Weight" became my favorite song. With its landmark second album, The Band became my favorite band, its members' voices a mix of the raw and the sublime, their songs a mix of the old Deep South and the mystical Far North.
I came to know Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel when they played on albums I recorded in the early 1980s in Los Angeles. Later, after Richard was gone, Rick Danko and Garth visited Mountain Stage for some wonderful performances. But I met Levon only twice, in 1994 and 1996, when the re-formed Band played Mountain Stage in Charleston.
As I listen to his vocals in "Rag, Mama, Rag," "Blind Willie McTell" and "The Weight" from the 1996 show, it's hard to imagine anyone else trying to sing those songs. Of course, everybody does try to sing "The Weight," but we all suffer by comparison. Levon's voice is for the ages. I can hear traces of Pops Staples and fellow Arkansan Ronnie Hawkins, influences from both sides of the big river that flowed near his home. Conway Twitty, like Levon, grew up in Helena, and Johnny Cash not far away in Kingsland. Powerful voices came out of that Arkansas dirt.
Levon had a very successful solo career, with Grammy-winning albums and the Midnight Ramble sessions. But his work as a singer, drummer and mandolin player with The Band will stand as some of the most true and important American music ever made.