I was getting ready to leave the country when Levon Helm died. It felt right to be going, getting out of the way, but before I could leave there was some reading to do: Charles P. Pierce described Levon as “the true voice of America”; Joe Gross wrote that “it was Helm who embodied the American authenticity The Band traded on”; Malcolm Jones said his voice was “an utterly American sound”; and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco went on to nominate the Arkansas drummer as “the glue…in all of what people think of when they think of North American music.”
All this talk, this overwhelming need to reinforce and cement Levon’s American-ness, led me to seek out an album I had never heard before. Released in 1980, American Son is Levon Helm’s third solo record. It was, according to AllMusic.com, “considered by many to be Levon’s best solo album,” yet the record was out of print and hard to find, a gaping loophole in the drummer’s discography. Levon himself, in his entertaining, brutally honest memoir, This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, spends all of two sentences on American Son, which came to be after he was asked to record “Blue Moon of Kentucky” for the soundtrack to Coal Miner’s Daughter:
I went into Bradley’s Barn studios in Nashville with the Cate Brothers and Fred Carter Jr., and after we did “Blue Moon” we figured why not put a little hay in the barn, so we cut twenty more tracks. Around the time Coal Miner’s Daughter came out in 1980, MCA (who had gobbled up ABC) released ten of these under the title American Son.
I wanted to hear a Levon I had never heard before, a Levon that hadn’t been subsumed by “Best of” lists and Greatest Hits collections. I wanted to hear Levon putting a little hay in the barn, so I tracked down the record and left a country that had just lost its native son.
With all his bands, Levon seemed to find happiness out of the spotlight, off to the side and out of the way, grinning, laughing, dancing, and drumming away behind his kit. American Son shows off a different Levon: Levon as front man, star, singer.
It’s hard to tell which, if any, instruments Levon is playing on the recording; the drumming on most tracks doesn’t make you cry. (No one quote was more repeated in Levon’s memorializing than Jon Carroll’s famous statement that “Levon Helm is the only drummer who can make you cry.”) The biggest adjustment is getting used to Levon as solo artist, a band-less Levon, backed by anonymous, slick, if proficient, Nashville session players.
American Son conveys another important side of the Arkansas drummer: interpreter. “Watermelon Time In Georgia,” the album’s opener, was written by Harlan Howard and first recorded by Lefty Frizzell, but Levon commands the song, singing a line that must have been somehow written for him, the quiet, lonesome Southern boy who spent his formative years touring juke joints and honky tonks in Canada (if that’s what they call them up there): “It makes a country boy getting down in the mouth / when his body’s up North and his heart is down South.”
I was sitting on a plane listening to American Son for the first time, and just as the mainland receded into the Atlantic Ocean, a new song started and that voice, out of nowhere, began:
I see the red, white, and blue, so mixed up and so confused.
Nobody knows which way to go, I see us running down a dead end road.
“America’s Farm” uses an agrarian call to arms as an in-your-face metaphor for what’s gone wrong with the country, and it’s hard to hear the song without thinking of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” “The Band’s song of blasted country hope,” as Greil Marcus wrote. It’s a far cry from the desperate “King Harvest,” trading in union dues for a flag-waving individualism, a determined confidence to “set our alarms, go up and work America’s Farm” that, coming from somebody else, would probably sound jingoistic. But “America’s Farm” is the exception on American Son, the only lyric grasping for some grand narrative, and the song that made me feel that my life depended on looking out the window of the plane, squinting down at some sort of blurry, vague idea of that great big, vanishing country.
Throughout American Son, Levon is lusty and looking for love, or else he’s full of sorrow and remorse.He’s filthy on “Nashville Wimmin,” a twelve-bar blues: “You a long-legged woman / You sure don’t have to talk,” but on the very next song, the soul ballad “Blue House of Broken Hearts,” he’s already apologizing—he’s woken up in the morning and realized what he’s said and done, and he’s downright ashamed.
What to do with a song like “China Girl”? Levon sounds tired, beaten, but also awfully, painfully, innocent; naive as to what exactly he’s doing, but aware, somehow, of its consequences.
What to do with “Move to Japan,” another song that starts off with a gong, released by The Band, with Levon singing lead, in 1993?
What to then do with what could properly be called a theme in Levon’s work of incongruous Oriental fetishizing? And what to do with the fact that “China Girl,” a song on an album called American Son, would be covered and popularized two years later by John “Cougar” Mellencamp on an album calledAmerican Fool? Mellencamp moans the come-on over a power-pop arrangement. He embraces the song’s sleaziness.
But Levon is the one who sounds like the fool—the poor soul who’s fallen for a girl he can’t understand. I was far away from home now, listening to “China Girl” whenever I could, maybe because Levon sounds so far away, too. He’s lost, mixed up in something he may regret. He’s as weary as he is innocent, as hesitant as he is alluring, as he tries to talk this girl into bed. Backup vocals are pushing and nudging him along the whole way through, urging Levon to finish what he’s started. And he could use some encouraging. He sounds like he needs to convince himself as much as the girl, like in the back of his mind he’s just thinking about a girl he left back in Georgia, like he’s really far from home and wishes he could just go back. He sounds like an American Son.