Sometime in early 2005, I bought my first ticket to Bonnaroo. I had always been music crazed and had attended hundreds of concerts, but had spent bulk of my youth listening to punk, ska, and R&B music. I wanted to go to Bonnaroo because something had changed inside me. A month before buying that ticket, I had heard The Rolling Stones for the first time ever, and I was falling in love with rock and roll. Artists like My Morning Jacket, The Faces, Rod Stewart, Elton John, and The Band had found their way into my constant CD rotation. Keep in mind that this was way back before we had ever even thought about forming the Guv’nahs. I was a big fan and a music appreciator, with no intentions of creating music, and certainly no intentions of being a singer in a band. About a month before Bonnaroo, I remember my roommates Justin Hoskins and Richard Baird telling me that if I loved The Band then I needed to watch The Last Waltz, a documentary directed by Martin Scorsese which detailed the final concert of The Band. So, I found a copy of the film and watched it. Shortly after that, I remember watching the film Festival Express and seeing a younger version of the band. Immediately, I became obsessed.
Besides just loving the sound of The Band, I also loved the dynamic of The Band. They didn’t appear to have a true leader. It looked and sounded like everyone in the group was a role player. If I was picking favorite personalities early on, then mine would have been Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Robbie Robertson… in that order. But Levon’s voice was the one that I would eventually become most drawn to, because I felt like it was most like my own.
While at Bonnaroo, I remember asking myself what it was about live music that I loved the most… and I concluded that I loved live concerts because it was one of the few places on earth where a group can congregate and be collectively equal for a period of time. The crowd rolls in, but when the band starts playing, it doesn’t matter if you are rich, poor, black, white, or awkward… the music creates an environment of equality, even if only for 1 hour. When the band stops, normal life resumes… but maybe someone leaves a little bit changed. I was a dreamer then, still am I guess.
Fast forward 4+ years to August 2009 and I’m playing in a band a few weekends a year and working in a cubicle at the University of Tennessee with the rest of my time. I clearly remember sitting in my cubicle one day in early August and getting a phone call from an unknown New York number. Normally, I screen all unknown numbers… but for some reason I answered this one and it ended up changing the course of my life.
On the other end of the line was a voice that said, “Hey James, got your email. This is Justin Guip at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, NY. We listened to some of the demos that you sent us and we are really diggin it. When do you wanna come up here and record?”
We ended up going to Woodstock for 2 weeks in December 2009 to record Youth Is In Our Blood. While we were there we met Levon Helm for the first time. Kind, humble, and witty are the ways that I would describe him. We recorded that album in his home, which is named “The Barn”, and everyday we would watch him wake up, put on a robe and go take Muddy for a walk (his dog). Everywhere he went, he took Muddy with him. In the car, in the house, on a walk around the property. Everywhere. On a Saturday night while we were up there recording, we were asked to open up for the Levon Helm Band at one of his famed Midnight Rambles. Obviously, we accepted and had the night of our lives. After the ramble was over, Levon and his crew personally invited us to his personal Christmas party. Again, we accepted… thinking, there will probably be 200 people at this party. After our final night of recording, we head to Levon’s Christmas party… showing up a little bit late. When we get there, there’s a crowd of maybe 20 to 25 people, most of which are family members. In walk the Guv’nahs and our crew of 6, upping the party’s number of attendees by about 25%. We ended the night at some bar in the middle of Woodstock with Levon’s crew dancing and singing the night away. Levon was obviously asleep by about 10pm. After all, he was battling cancer and was in his late 60′s.
Levon’s management contacted us again about a year later and asked us to come up to The Barn and open for another of the Midnight Rambles, this time in January 2011. At the end of that night, Levon asked the Guv’nahs to get up on stage and encore “The Weight” with him and the band. Taking the stage, Levon leaned over to me and said, “Son, you’re taking the first verse.” Luckily, I knew all the words by heart. Nervous, I grabbed a mic between Levon and his daughter Amy Helm. The 4 count of the sticks, and then the song began. I will never ever forget harmonizing on the “Take a load off Annie’s” and the “Catch a cannonball” ending with his daughter Amy Helm. Every band member was on an instrument. One of the purest moments of true joy that I’ve ever experienced.
Yesterday, Levon Helm passed away after a long battle with cancer. He was surrounded by many friends and family at the hospital as he left this world and went onto the next. The crew that worked for Levon was one of the most tightly knit groups of people that I have ever encountered. We received a phone call today from the studio engineer, and he said that the vibe up in Woodstock is still very positive. We pray for strength for them during this next phase of each of their lives.
Levon Helm was a good man. He brought joy to the world. On stage and in person, he was inspiration and an encouragement to many. I am thankful for the short time that we got to spend with him.