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Barn Burner

Legendary drummer Levon Helm's down-home roots jams have been attracting some very special guests to a barn in rural New York.

Author Jason Fine Photography Courtesy of Paul La Raia

IT’S NOT EASY TO FIND Levon Helm’s farm, up a mountain road that twists through pine and hemlock forests a couple of miles outside Woodstock, New York. There are no street lights, no route markers. The only hint is a “Beware of Bear” sign on a tree by the narrow dirt driveway that leads to Helm’s place.

The trip is worth the risk of a bear mauling. For the past five years, Helm, the legendary drummer and singer for The Band has opened his country barn three, sometimes four Saturday nights a month for what he calls the “Midnight Ramble,” a loose jam for a couple hundred fans and some of his close friends. Helm plays drums and mandolin, and he leads a full band that includes longtime Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell on guitar, Helm’s daughter Amy on vocals and whoever else happens through that night, be it Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, Chris Robinson, Norah Jones or Billy Bob Thornton.

“The Ramble’s about nothing but the music,” says Campbell, sitting at the kitchen table after a show in June.

“It’s no beauty contest,” adds Helm, who is spry at 69.

The Arkansas native first arrived in Woodstock in 1967, when The Band was backing Dylan. The group wrote the legendary Basement Tapes with Dylan here, as well as their debut, Music From Big Pink. They split up in 1976, at which point Helm moved back to Woodstock and quietly released solo records for 20 years. In 1998, he was nearly broke when he was diagnosed with throat cancer and told he’d probably never sing again.

“Two things people don’t want are poverty and cancer,” he has said. “And I had both.”

Miraculously, Helm’s voice came back. In 2004, he began hosting the Ramble to “get my singing back in shape” and to raise money to pay off his debts (tickets are $150 and sell out fast). He never expected the gig to amount to much, and it shows: There’s no stage, and the audience sits on folding chairs and feasts on a potluck buffet in the barn’s kitchen.

On a warm evening in early summer, with the moon shining through the trees outside, Helm performs songs from his new record, Electric Dirt. Tonight, the 11-piece band includes guest Donald Fagen of Steely Dan on piano. Helm beams as he plays his famous shuffling snare rhythm, yelping “Come on!” when the band hits a good groove.

After the last song, with the audience still cheering, Helm slips back to his house. As one of his five dogs, a Staffordshire terrier named Muddy, jumps onto his lap, he sits at a cluttered table in the kitchen and pops open a can of Coke. “This is what I live for,” he says, still grinning. “This joyful noise.”

JASON FINE is the executive editor of Rolling Stone.

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