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CD Review: Levon Helm - "Ramble at the Ryman"

There are few American institutions with as deep a connection to roots music as the Ryman, and it serves as the perfect setting for Helm’s melting pot of blues, soul, and country.

Levon Helm
Ramble at the Ryman
Vanguard Records

Throughout the year, Levon Helm—legendary drummer and vocalist for the Band—hosts “Midnight Rambles” at his home studio in Woodstock, New York. These events are open to the public and often feature special guests. Helm decided to pack up the band and head to the “Carnegie Hall of the South,” Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, to record his latest album, Ramble at the Ryman. There are few American institutions with as deep a connection to roots music as the Ryman, and it serves as the perfect setting for Helm’s melting pot of blues, soul, and country.

Opening with “Ophelia,” the funky ode to a missing love, you can hear how Helm’s ensemble reinterprets the Band’s classic track with a pronounced New Orleans feel, especially in the horn section. Musical Director and guitarist Larry Campbell plays a short, but melodic solo that combines some jazz phrasing with a down-home country feel. Little Sammy Davis joins the band to bring some Delta blues to the mix on “Fannie May” and “Baby Scratch My Back.” Davis’ harmonica adds a real juke-joint flavor to the festivities and makes me wonder why he isn’t better known. Nashville resident Sheryl Crow joins in on the Carter Family’s “No Depression in Heaven” and adds a lonesome sound to the country classic.

One of the most achingly beautiful tracks on the album, Lauralyn Dossett’s “Anna Lee” serves as a showcase for Helm’s raspy, Southern twang. Since surviving a bout with throat cancer, Helm’s voice may have lost some of its Last Waltz-era power, but it has gained a unique, emotional character. Helm’s digs back into his former group’s catalog for the rambunctious “Rag Mama Rag” and “The Shape I’m In.” In lieu of the organ intro on “Chest Fever,” Campbell offers an a cappella guitar intro that shows off his edgy tone and burning fingerstyle chops. The album wraps up with John Hiatt joining the party on “The Weight.” By adding a danceable vibe to some of the most beloved Americana tunes around, Helm—much like he did with Music from Big Pink—injects a much-needed shot of soul into the genre.

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