Hillbilly Highway – End of the line for Levon

by Sheldon Birnie

Much has already been said about the sad passing of American Legend Levon Helm. I can add nothing here to offer further insight into the life of a man whose music and soul touched millions, but I would certainly be remiss if I didn’t pull this rig over, rest a while, and crank up his tunes for a few minutes in honour.

Since most of you will undoubtedly know the story of Levon as well or better than I do, I’ll leave biographical details to the other, more detailed and eloquent memorials that have popped up in print over the past week. Others have also gone and waxed poetic on the subject of to his musical, artistic and cultural contributions to Americana, and indeed America, so I see no point in reproducing what they’ve already done so well. The man was a genius, and a goddamn original; that’s plain for anyone to see. That he will be missed is certainly an understatement.

From my space here, on the Highway, all I can do is share some personal tidbits of how Levon’s music has touched my own travels, raise a glass, and pour some out into the shoulder dust for The Man.

Growing up in northern BC, I tuned in religiously to the all night, all requests Golden Oldies marathons that were beamed in via the AM waves. That would have been my first exposure to “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Later, as a very young adult, these tunes would be repeated endlessly at Jam Nites I attended at the Beach Club Bar every Sunday night, which acted as much like a Church for me and my boozehound buddies as any door I’ve darkened, lo these 28 years.

When I was 19, I spent a lot of time with a lady I figured I was in love with (and probably was). We’d listen to the Band late at night, or early in the morning with the loons calling on the lake, and the bats flying outside the window. Their Greatest Hits disc was the soundtrack – along with CSNY Deja Vu – to our summer love affair. When fall rolled in, I loaded up on a Greyhound bus headed west with a mangled ankle and a broken heart. At a stop over in Alberta, I hobbled down the road to a CD store, bought the disc, and listened to it the rest of the back up to northern BC.

After that, it was open season. I bought the Last Waltz DVD and played it on repeat for years. I dug through used records, scouring for old Dylan, Neil Young, and most importantly, old Band records, which enjoy more regular play today than almost all of the other nuggets I dug up in those early days. Indeed, they’ve been hauled countless kilometers, back and forth across the country, and outlasted one turntable so far.

A few years later, maybe five, six years ago now, I crossed the prairies in a small car with my father, headed to Clear Lake from Dawson Creek. The old car didn’t have a CD player, and the only tape we had was an ancient version of The Band. For whatever reason, my clearest memory of that journey is rolling into a gas station east of Saskatoon, with “Rag Mama Rag” rocking, the sun blaring down as it does only on the northern plains, golden dust clouds rising from our tires, and my old dad saying, “Not a bad tune, eh?”

A couple years ago, I was lucky enough to catch Levon and his band at the Winnipeg Folk Fest. I’ve always been bummed out I never got to see Richard Manuel or Rick Danko, but I figured it would almost make up for it if I could catch Levon, even once. Seeing Levon rocking on the drums like a man half his age, and getting to see and hear him, right up close, belt out those classic tunes has been one among the greatest musical memories of my life to date, and will likely remain in that list until the end of my line.

For the last year, I’d been planning to attend one of Levon’s legendary Midnight Rambles near Woodstock, New York. While my best gal tried to convince me that New York City was a destination we had to hit, I was only interested in seeing Bearsville and the barn Levon built. But it wasn’t meant to be.

Elton John famously devoted his classic tune “Levon” to the man, but I believe that Jason Isbell’s “Danko/Manuel” is the best piece of writing OR music dedicated to the long hours Levon and the Boys spent out on the Highway. Beyond those tunes, far better eulogies have been written about Levon Helm in the last week than this one. But it was something that couldn’t go unacknowledged, considering the debt many of us travelling the Hillbilly Highway owe Levon the Boys in the Band. Without them, where would we be today?

And so here you go, Levon. While you may not have been “bosom buddies” to me, or millions of others, without you this journey down the road would have been much darker. Here’s to you, sir. Let the dirt soak up the lager and wet your thirst in the Great Perhaps. Amen.

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