Amy Helm has released her latest album of songs and it is a stunner. Appropriately named for the beautiful opener, Hiss Golden Messenger’s “This Too Shall Light,” the collection of lovely melodies and uplifting lyrics illuminates all its shadowy places. Featuring only one up-tempo number – Levon and the Hawks’ “The Stones I Throw” — the rest are stately and soul-soothing in message and/or delivery. These include Allen Toussaint’s “Freedom for the Stallion,” Helm’s original “Heaven’s Holding Me” and the majestic closer, “Gloryland,” a song she performed a handful of times with her father before he passed in 2012. She is ably assisted by a band of brilliant musicians and a trio of gorgeous voices. The band’s cover of the Milk Carton Kids’ “Michigan” is getting some attention in the press, but the one I listen to again and again is the haunting “Long Daddy Green.”
On Labor Day weekend, I caught up with Amy before her performance at the Four Corners Folk Festival in Pagosa Spring, Colorado, to talk about the new record, the inaugural Dirt Farmer Festival, what’s happening these days at Levon’s Barn in Woodstock and the announcement of some December shows with Ollabelle.
Nine of the 10 tracks on This Too Shall Light are covers, but Helm said the choices were made organically.
“I recorded more than that, but every project takes on a life of its own,” Helm said. “Listening back, my producer Joe Henry and I picked the songs with a certain tone and atmosphere to them — a feeling and a story that felt right. We decided on 10 songs, one of which I wrote, and the rest are some obscure and some not-so-obscure covers.”
Mike Taylor from Hiss Golden Messenger and Josh Kaufman wrote the title track for Helm to sing.
“I love that song,” she said. “That one feels special. I think it all sounds good because I have such a kick-ass choir on it: Allison Russell and JT Nero – they’re in a band called Birds of Chicago — and Adam Minkoff, a friend of mine who I play with every chance I get. He’s come out with my band many times.”
Helm said that none of the members of her touring band play on the record.
“Joe Henry, like a lot of producers, uses his own stable of go-to players, she said. “So there’s Jay Bellerose on drums, his wife Jen Condos on bass, Doyle Bramhall on guitar, and an incredible keyboardist named Tyler Chester from Los Angeles. We recorded the tracks in four days. I went out to LA, and I don’t think we did more than two or occasionally three takes of anything. I didn’t overdub a single note, we left it all there, other than putting some vocal pieces together. For the most part it, was all done in the moment.
“At Joe’s request, leading up to the record I didn’t rehearse any of the songs,” Helm said. “I didn’t even sing them more than once or twice. A couple of them I just sang in my living room, sitting at the piano or at the drums by myself and kind of practicing a little bit. But Joe didn’t want me or any of the players to get too familiar with the songs. And that made for a very interesting spontaneity and chemistry when we got to the recording session.”
Helm’s second big project, the inaugural Dirt Farmer Festival, was held on August 19th in a large field in Accord, NY. It was sold out. Helm said the inspiration for the festival came from her father, the late and dearly missed Levon Helm.
“A long time ago, my dad did a free concert at Gill Farm,” Helm said, “and he always wanted to build that into a bigger festival. So for a long time now, I’ve had this dream of building a festival in his name. I thought Dirt Farmer was a perfect title.”
Helm said she had no experience putting together such an event but she had plenty of help.
“I’m very lucky that Drew Frankel, who is part of my management team, is extremely experienced at organizing festivals and helping them come to fruition,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without him. He booked Mountain Jam for years so he had the skill set to do it. With his help, along with a village of other people, we got Jackson Browne and William Bell and Mike Taylor to say they wanted to come and be part of it the first year.
“I was so proud of the variety of musicians that were there,” Helm said. “I wanted a festival that was genre-less, with both urban, young, upcoming artists and established artists: a space where new musicians can meet icons and vice versa. One of my favorite moments at the festival was watching Jackson Browne listening to Mike Taylor do a beautiful acoustic set of his music. Jackson was singing along, just completely digging his melodies and his songs.”
Helm said she would like to make the festival an annual event and will start planning the next one soon.
“I think people saw when they arrived that there was no pecking order, no scene, no pretension,” she said. “I wanted it to be like The Barn, and I think we were able to bring the feeling that is so unique to the Barn and put it on that stage and in that field.”
There have been some recent changes at the Barn, with more and different shows being added to the burgeoning schedule.
“We’ve been wanting to open up the Barn and really let it become the landmark spot that it is,” Helm said. “We have a new team there booking and running the day-to-day management and we’ve been working really hard to expand into other genres with different kinds of artists and targeting different demographics. It should be a place that can hold all of that and that’s what my dad wanted it to be. Christy Newman, our new day-to-day manager, is taking charge of everything and Drew’s doing a great job booking.
“Some of the folks who had worked there for a long time decided that it was time to step down and pass it on to the next generation. So I put together a team of people that I really, really believe in, and my stepmother really likes, so the whole thing’s really unified and invigorated. The proof is in the vibrancy of what’s happening there now.”
Fans seem to have taken note: A recent performance by Lake Street Dive sold out in hours.
“There are so many musicians like Lake Street Dive who want to come play at the Barn and connect to what my dad built and who he was as a musician,” Helm said. “It was just a matter of putting the word out, sending the invitation and letting people have the opportunity to see what it’s like to sing and play there. It hasn’t been a difficult job because a lot of people want to make that pilgrimage. It’s a bit of a sacred space for players.”
Helm’s busy touring schedule makes time with her sons, Lee and Hugh, particularly precious.
“They’re so big and doing great,” she said. “My older son loves the Rock Academy, my younger son loves everything – Legos, soccer, he’s just starting first grade. Lee really loves music. He keeps asking me when can I quit school and go on the road with you,” she laughed.
Helm and her band are touring throughout October, playing old favorites as well as songs from the new record. She has also recently announced that she will play two shows in December with Ollabelle, the band she co-founded some 15 years ago that opened for the Midnight Ramble Band at Levon’s Barn in Woodstock for a few years. Ollabelle will play at City Winery in New York City on December 20, and at the Barn in Woodstock on December 22.
“That band was a vital and vibrant part of all of our musical experiences and learning,” Helm said. “I know all of us are very much looking forward to reconnecting inside those songs and harmonies.”
Kay Cordtz has been fascinated by music and musicians since elementary school when she ran home from school every day to watch American Bandstand. Since then, she has been a newspaper reporter, political spokeswoman, government science writer and freelance chronicler of local music scenes during a 30+-year career. She is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism