Things weren't looking that great for Levon Helm in the early 2000s. The Phillips County native, drummer, vocalist and founding member of The Band was battling throat cancer and had again filed for bankruptcy. The cancer had silenced his singing voice, one of the most distinct in rock 'n' roll, and because of the money problems he was on the brink of losing his house and property in Woodstock, N.Y.
By early 2004, however, there was a glimmer of hope, sparked by music. Helm had a plan to host concerts in a barn attached to his home where he would play with a crack band of pros, including his daughter Amy and Larry Campbell, formerly of Bob Dylan's band, amid a homey, potluck-style atmosphere where 250-400 fans could come for an intimate night of songs and fun. It was steady income, and a way for the beloved Helm to get back on his feet. He called it the Midnight Ramble.
And it worked. The Ramble, which began informally in late 2003, eventually became a near-weekly event and was usually sold out even with ticket prices at more than $100. There were opening acts and special guests — Joan Osborne, Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, Billy Bob Thornton, The Felice Brothers, Mumford & Sons and My Morning Jacket, to name a few. Most every Saturday night, if you were a fan of people playing rock, blues, country and all the really interesting stuff in between, Levon Helm's barn was the place to be.
'THE INSIDE STORY'
Journalist John W. Barry was there for almost all of the Rambles and has written a book, "Levon Helm: Rock, Roll, Ramble — The Inside Story of the Man, the Music and the Midnight Ramble." It's an enlightening, thoroughly reported and well-conceived look into the last years of the life of Helm, who was 71 when he died April 19, 2012, of complications from throat cancer.
Barry, a staff writer with the USA Today Network for 25 years who also spent nearly two decades writing about music for the Poughkeepsie Journal, gives an insider's view of the tumult from which the Ramble sprang, the effort it took from Helm and his circle to get it off the ground and the joy it produced.
The self-published book dips into Helm's life in Arkansas — he was born in Elaine and grew up in Turkey Scratch near Marvell — and touches on his life-changing stint backing singer, wild man and fellow Arkie Ronnie Hawkins with Canadians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel. Helm and the others would eventually leave Hawkins to form The Band, combining rustic authenticity with superb musicianship and innate creativity to become one of the most influential groups of the late '60s and early '70s.
But this book is not a deep-dive into Helm's life (for that, check 1993's "This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band," written by Helm and Stephen Davis), instead focusing on the Ramble period. Barry, a huge fan of The Band, was first brought into the fold by Barbara O'Brien, Helm's de facto manager who played a pivotal role in the success of the Ramble concept and who gets her own chapter in the book.
LEVON WAS GOING TO SING
"I had never met Levon," Barry says during an interview last week. "I got a phone call from [O'Brien] and she told me that Levon had been holding these performances at his home recording studio in Woodstock."
The big news O'Brien wanted to share was that for the next Ramble, in October 2004, Levon, whose voice had gotten stronger, was going to sing. Would Barry like to do an interview with him?
Yes, as a matter of fact, he would.
"That was when my relationship with him began," Barry says. "As the Ramble picked up steam and eventually held every Saturday — and it was sold out every Saturday — I was just hanging around."
The 53-year-old Barry, who was born in the Bronx, N.Y., and grew up in the Hudson River Valley, had been going to concerts since he was a teenager at iconic New York venues like Madison Square Garden, the Beacon Theater and Radio City Music Hall. The atmosphere at the Midnight Ramble was unmatched, he says.
"There was an urgency about it. There was no stage per se ... it was immediate."
'MUSIC WAS SO COMPELLING'
Describing what it was like to be there most every week, Barry says, "the music was so compelling and spectacular you would just want to go to the next one. I would leave Levon Helm Studios and I would just be shaking my head saying there's no way they're going to top that next week. Then I go the next week and say there's no way they're going to top that next week."
The Ramble also helped rejuvenate Helm's recording career. "Dirt Farmer," his 2007 solo album and "Electric Dirt," its 2009 follow-up, both won Grammy awards. "Ramble at the Ryman," a live album recorded Sept. 17, 2008, at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium and released in May, 2011, also won a Grammy.
The book is filled with long quotations from Helm culled from years of interviews by Barry. Helm called the Midnight Ramble "the easiest thing I've ever done. The whole place turns into a temple for me. There is nothing else and time and everything else is kind of suspended ... and walking out of your living room and playing a show — it's the best."
Barry interviews musicians in Helm's band including Campbell, Clark Gayton, Jay Collins, Steven Bernstein, Erik Lawrence, Howard Johnson, Mike Merritt, Byron Isaacs, Teresa Williams and Brian Mitchell. He also talks with behind-the-scenes characters including O'Brien, a longtime fan of The Band and an administrative assistant with the Ulster County sheriff's office for 35 years whose organizational skills would help whip the Ramble into shape.
"I'm an organizer by nature," O'Brien says during an interview last week. "I'm not from the music business, I have a 9-to-5 job. Levon invited me into the fold, gave me some ideas and orders and I went in and gently cleaned house. He was at the point in his life when he wanted things to be different, and the timing of me being there was just perfect."
BARRY AND HELM
Because of her day job, O'Brien was familiar with members of the local press and figured Barry and Helm would get along well.
"I knew his personality would fit best with Levon's," she says. "John was very honest, very authentic, open and non-aggressive."
O'Brien, who is quick to point out that there were many other people who kept the Ramble going week to week, has not quite made her way through the book just yet.
"I've started the book, but to tell the truth, I'm going really slowly with it. It's stirring up a lot of great memories, and I don't want it to end."
Barry visited Phillips County in 2010 to get a feel for Helm's first home and writes about it in a chapter called "Arkansas." He toured the area with Helm's childhood friends Mary Cavett and Annalee Amsden, the latter of whom is famously name checked in The Band classic "The Weight."
"The way I feel about Phillips County, Turkey Scratch, Marvell and Helena, I think I can sum it up by saying I can't want to get back there," he says last week. "I love the geography, the food, the people ... to drive around there with Annalee and Mary was one of the most special days in my life."
For readers of the book, Barry hopes he has captured the essence of the Ramble and given a sense of where Helm was at that point in his life.
"If you were able to attend the Ramble, I hope you read the book and go, 'Yeah, this guy nailed it. That's what it was like.' And if you didn't make it to the Midnight Ramble, I want to put you there and give you a sense of the joy and the triumph."