THERE’S something so refreshing about meeting Levon Helm. Amidst an industry full of people with pretentions and exaggerated airs of self-importance, Levon doesn ‘t know how to be anything but Levon. I think we were friends the instant we met. He’s like that—warm handshake, smiling eyes and a down-home manner that demands you be the same. The first time I met him and his wife, Sandy, he was in L.A. for a couple of days recording vocals for the soundtrack of The Best Revenge, a film in which he also acted. We spent a warm, laughter-filled evening, and by its end, they had invited me to their home in Woodstock, New York—not for the interview, but to enjoy the peaceful surroundings.
It turned out that Levon would have preferred it if I had done just that. It’s not that he isn’t cooperative or has anything against interviews; it ‘s just that he doesn’t think he has enough to say to warrant an interview. His technical knowledge is limited and it’s difficult for him to explain how he does what he does. The key is simple: He just does it; he feels it. Feel is an impossible word to define, but in the drum dictionary, Levon Helm is the definition. When you listen to him sing, his voice is like a warm fire on a cold night. You can’t help but smile when you watch him play cat and mouse with the drums either. He’s laid-back and quiet, and then there’s the sly, stealthy approach before he pounces in a sudden playfulness. AIso, there’s always a smile on his face. In fact, if he isn ‘t having fun, he won’t do it.
Levon has enjoyed everything to which he has given his attention, beginning with his days with Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks to his present acting career and Band reunion. The Band began its evolution when Levon Helm and several other Arkansans moved to Canada in 1958 to back Ronnie Hawkins. During 1961, Robbie Robertson replaced the previous guitar player and within a few months all the Arkansans, with the exception of Helm, were replaced by Canadians Rick Danko (bass), Richard Manuel (keyboards, drums) and Garth Hudson (keyboards, brass, woodwinds). The Hawks parted company with Hawkins in 1963, however, and in 1965, fate brought them together with Bob Dylan.
Their association with Dylan, though, only acted as a springboard for their own talents and it wasn’t long before the group became a sensation on its own. After such classics as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, ” “The Weight” and “Cripple Creek, ” The Band announced its retirement and gave a farewell performance at Bill Graham’s Winterland in San Francisco on Thanksgiving night, 1976. The Last Waltz documents the history of The Band and that memorable night, and is one of the finest music films in existence. Since then, Levon has involved himself in a variety of projects. He has recorded three solo albums, toured with the Muscle Shoals All-Danko, and if you want a musical treat, get a copy of the album The Legend Of Jesse James. Levon plays drums and has the role of Jesse James in this fine piece of musical theater written by Paul Kennerley, which also features EmmyLou Harris, Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels, Albert Lee, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash. As for Helm’s acting career, he has appeared in such projects as Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Best Revenge, The Right Stuff, The Dollmaker (TV film), and even an episode of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.
When I asked Levon if the mediums of music and film related, he replied, “You try to do the same thing for a scene that you do for a song. You try to bring it to life and get it like the director wants it, the same as you do a record. You ‘re supposed to let your producer guide you. That’s who’s supposed to help you get it so that it’s got the right ingredients in there: life and breath; heart and soul. ” Those are the words I would use to describe Levon and everything he does.
RF: Why did you end up as a drummer?
LH: I don’t know. I guess it’s from being born in Elaine, Arkansas. That’s a pretty basic part of America where there’s a lot of good basic music. Drums just always sounded like the most fun part of that good music for me. I had the opportunity to see some of the traveling minstrel shows years ago, with the house band, the chorus line, the comedians and singers. In those kinds of shows, with horns and a full rhythm section, the drums always looked like the best seat in the house. That sound of cymbals and the snare drum popping in there like that just sounded like Saturday night and good times.
RF: Is it accurate to say that your strongest musical influences were country and blues?
LH: Yes. That’s native to the geography in Phillips County, all through that part of the Delta—the Memphis/Mid-South part. As I was coming up through school, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis started. A lot of the country and blues influences started blending, and good hybrids of rock ‘n’ roll developed out of those mixes. That’s really basically it for me. I’ve always thought that my snare drum should sound a lot like J.M. Van Eaton’s snare drum on Jerry Lee’s record of “Whole Lotta Shakin’.” That’s usually the way I try to fix it. I like that sort of a dull “thud” sound with lots of wood, using the snare for the beat. I like the bass drum kind of toned down, and I usually muffle the toms down quite a bit more than is usual. I think that’s just mainly my personal taste.
A long time ago, The Band tried mixing some records on our own. Everything we mixed sounded good in the studio, but we’d take it home and we couldn’t hardly hear it over our speakers. We’d mix it very bass heavy because that’s what we liked. We were a rhythm section and the way we could hear ourselves was if we turned everything up. [laughs] I’ve always thought that one had a bit of an advantage being in the percussion department, particularly playing drums.
RF: What was the Jungle Bush Beaters?
LH: That was a high school group I played with. We had an electric guitar and stand-up doghouse bass with a mic’ on it—some sort of a pickup that had been rigged up. There was another guitar, and a kid playing a snare drum with a couple of brushes, I think.
RF: Not you?
LH: No, I was playing one of the guitars. The Jungle Bush Beaters didn’t last too long as a group, but we had a pretty good time while we did.
RF: I get the impression you have a good time with everything you do.
LH: Well, I try to. I don’t fool with a lot of things that I can’t have fun with. There’s not much reward in that. For instance, after we mixed the album that you couldn’t hear over a speaker, I shied away from engineering, you might say.
RF: Was Jungle Bush Beaters your first band?
LH: I guess it was, although my sister and I used to play together as kids.
RF: What did she play?
LH: My sis played a washtub bass, I played guitar, and we had a guitarist who would play with us on occasion. When my sister started getting a bit older and grew shy of that washtub, she quit and we started getting a few new members into the group. There was usually myself, Thurlo Brown, God rest him, and a couple other fellows from around Marvell, Arkansas.
Not having seen anywhere else, it seemed like a lot of music was going on right there with Sonny Boy Williamson down at the radio station in Helena. Ralph DeJernett, Bubba Stewart and the boys were playing out at the pool hall there in Marvell. There’d be a one-man jug band coming through and advertisements up for a big minstrel show that would be coming to town. Then Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys might be there the week after that. They used to come through with a tent show also. So it was okay for music. We could get Memphis and Shreveport, Louisiana, on the radio station, and reach all the way to Oklahoma City and Nashville.
RF: I assume that the Jungle Bush Beaters played cover tunes.
LH: We sort of jammed along. We would do current hits of the day for the dances we would play. We were bad to do jams and instrumentals and things. We didn’t have any sort of a tried-and-proven formula, or approach or anything. We just played. Thurlo Brown was one of the best guitar players around that part of the country. There were several good musicians from there. Conway Twitty was always our local hero when I was growing up. He had a series of good bands.
RF: What did you aspire to?
LH: I wanted to sit in, if Conway would let me. And he did a couple of times. He’s alright.
RF: What did you play?
LH: Well, I don’t know if any of them let me take their guitars, but I sat in and maybe sang a song or something. I was there mainly to observe and to be amazed.
RF: What was the first gig you did as a drummer?
LH: Well, Conway had a guitar player named Jimmy Ray Paulman. Jimmy Ray and Ronnie Hawkins formed a group called The Hawks. There weren’t a lot of drummers around at the time so I kind of got in there, playing with Ronnie.
RF: How old were you when The Hawks happened?
LH: I was in high school but I was trying to get out of high school. The only thing slowing me up was grades, [laughs] I really had rambling on my mind. I wanted to go. One of the prettiest sights in the world was a big Cadillac rolling down the road with a doghouse bass tied to the top of it. That looked like the car I wanted to be in.
RF: Was being a musician your intent?
LH: I guess so, from way back, because I started being in those school shows and things, when we would have them, singing or playing the guitar a little bit. I had played with two or three high school bands, and I just hit it lucky when I got out and talked to Jimmy Ray, Ronnie, George, and Will “Pop” Jones—another cousin of theirs who was a piano player. We hit the road together and just played music.
RF: So you went as the drummer at that point?
LH: Yes, with a borrowed set of drums.
RF: You didn’t even have your own yet?
LH: No, I didn’t have those yet. But a friend of mine at home finally took me to Memphis and bought me a set. He advised me that I should go ahead and get in the musicians’ union. He gave me a set of drums and said, “Stay on the job, son.”
RF: What did your parents think of that?
LH: Well, if dad and mom could have had their preference, they probably would have preferred that I be a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist, or a great humanitarian. They wanted me to go to school, but don’t we all want what’s best for each other? They’ve been pretty good. My dad used to play country dances when he was growing up.
RF: What did he play?
LH: He played guitar. He sings good and my mom’s got a good alto voice. We always enjoyed music, but it never did fascinate them like it did me.
RF: Did you do “Music night at the Helm house”?
LH: Oh yeah. My dad and I played music. He teaches me a song or two every time I’m home.
RF: Do you still sit around and jam?
LH: Yeah, we do. It is fun. He still knows a lot of the old songs he used to perform and play for dances, so we make little tapes together.
RF: Did you play along with records when you were young?
LH: Oh sure, I beat the dashboard off a car. When “Keep A-Knockin’ ” came out with Little Richard it just really knocked me out. I couldn’t get enough of that and still can’t.
RF: Did you have any drum idols at that time?
LH: Earl Palmer just about wrapped it up for me. He was my favorite for a long time. I liked all of the records by Little Richard. I used to enjoy Muddy Waters records and Jimmy Reed records out of Chicago. The Phillip Upchurch/ AI Duncan rhythm combination played a lot of those records.
RF: Since you have not been formally trained on any of your instruments, including your voice, it’s amazing how fluent you are.
LH: Well, I’ve had all the lessons I could get. I’ve learned from everybody I’ve ever met.
RF: Just picking their brains?
LH: Yeah, just by being with them, and playing with all the musicians and the people who I grew up with. I’ve worked on some of my fundamentals a little bit and I’ve taken it maybe a notch above an elementary level, but I’m really not schooled at all. I don’t read well. I don’t write well.
RF: Do you feel like that matters?
LH: Yeah, I do. I think that I could be a lot better at it if I did.
RF: When it comes to feel, though, sometimes thetechnical aspects are overrated.
LH: But I think the reading makes you quicker. Everybody’s feeling the music, so if you give it good concentration, good energy, good heart and good performance, the song will play you, but the more you can learn, I think, the better it will help you. The more good records you can hear and the more drummers you can hear, the more you learn.
RF: So you can execute that feeling.
LH: Yeah, within yourself. You don’t have to look at it like you’re copying somebody. I’ve done something that I’ve felt I might have just “found.” And I did. I found it stuck way back in my head. It was something I’d heard way back.
RF: To me, your playing and singing all revolve around heart. That’s not something you can learn. What does that come from?
LH: I don’t know. I guess that’s just music, right? I do it the best I can. Thank you for the kind words, but, hell, when I’m singing I can hear myself very well, and I don’t sound like Ray Charles. The least I can do is try. I know the way to do it is to put as much life into the song as I can. You can either get it to breathe or you can’t. I know that’s the only way to get the song to play you, so that’s where the tickle is. What helps is to have a musician like Garth Hudson playing beside you, kind of bouncing the ball back and forth with you. Then you’ve got a chance to do better than you can alone, and then you might be able to play above your head.
RF: Playing with good musicians can inspire you.
LH: I think that might be the key.
RF: When did the singing enter into it?
LH: Well, somebody’s got to sing. They won’t hire you unless you do a few good songs, right? If you don’t sing, they might have to hire a singer.
RF: Singing drummers are not a dime a dozen. It’s a real rare kind of thing.
LH: That’s obvious, [laughs] It’s easy to see why.
RF: Is it difficult?
LH: It’s just another way that some of us have to do it.
RF: When you first started singing and playing, did you encounter any difficulties, like keeping time?
LH: Some songs will fit that and some songs won’t. When you can sing a song rhythmically, right in there with the main pulse, then it might be an advantage. It’s a lot of fun when it’s that kind of song, because I can just raise hell with it, answer every phrase and set up every verse. With anything that doesn’t fit or doesn’t come natural, I just have to go ahead and admit that Richard Manuel should sing it, or somebody else in the group ought to do it.
RF: You were singing back in your younger days too.
LH: I used to sing more when I played guitar than when I played drums.
RF: Did it feel more natural?
LH: I guess most drummers are into the general playing of the music as opposed to wanting to get out and sing the song, so to speak. Maybe that’s why singers usually play piano, guitar or an instrument like that.
RF: When did you begin playing the mandolin?
LH: Probably the first time one became available. It’s one of those traditional instruments. It’s a pretty sound and it’s right at the heartstrings of a certain flavor of music for me. I’ve always loved that sound. It’s like a harmonica for me. The dobro and banjo have that same ring to them for me. A piano, the mother of instruments, is beautiful and warm, but it doesn’t have that particular ring that I’m talking about—heartstrings.
RF: Do you feel that playing other instruments makes your approach to the drums more melodic?
LH: It would be nice if it could. I know I play all the other instruments like a drum.
RF: What does that mean?
LH: Anytime I switch to another instrument, I just immediately turn it into another kind of drum, so that I can understand it better. Rhythmically I just find my little contribution, the pattern, the pulse and the rhythm of the song.
RF: When you went off with Ronnie Hawkins, you met the rest of the members who later became The Band. What was your first impression playing together in The Hawks?
LH: Well, every day for me was Sunday back in those days. I just liked traveling and playing. We seemed to be getting along alright. We’d even run in and out of New York City every now and then, and be on television. There was always something going on.
RF: Did you feel a certain magic when you first played with them?
LH: We didn’t deal in those kinds of terms. We looked at it in terms of feelings—if things would feel right, lay right and if we could create that mood. But people would come and go, and the only thing you could really work towards was some sort of a consistency and quality of musicianship. Ronnie would always try to hire the best musicians he could find, naturally We just all ended up playing it, and we got the reputation after a while of being a pretty good bar band around the country. That’s just because we love music.
RF: When The Hawks broke away, you became the leader of that band. Why did that happen?
LH: Because I had been in the band the longest.
RF: What were your responsibilities as leader?
LH: I had to do most of the driving. Other than that, nothing serious. I think different members would come forward in certain situations. It was always sort of a democratic group. We would always share the money.
RF: How long did you play as The Hawks before Bob Dylan entered the picture?
LH: I guess we were around for a year or two like that. We had a couple of different aliases that we went by, but it didn’t seem to help, [laughs] We would try something new, but business wouldn’t noticeably pick up a whole lot. We ran across Bob at that particular time and that was just some real good God-given timing for us, as it turned out. That opened it up for us to finally get a recording contract. We signed to Capitol Records as The Crackers. The first record didn’t have a name on it because Capitol wasn’t crazy about putting “by The Crackers” on it. So on the back of it they put our family pictures, and then “The Band” along with the names of our band members.
RF: As in “this is the band that played the album.”
LH: When the second record came out, they still didn’t like The Crackers and that’s when it started being called The Band. I voted to call it The Crackers. I’m no fool.
RF: The story goes that Dylan saw you playing in some club somewhere.
LH: We had a mutual friend, Mary Martin from Toronto, who introduced us. Bob needed a group, and we needed a break, so lo and behold, the two things coincided.
RF: Were you very familiar with his music?
LH: No, I wasn’t. I was into B.B. King, Muddy Waters and I still felt Ray Charles had the best band.
RF: Why did only you and Robertson play the first gig at Forest Hills? Many accounts suggest that it was because the band was initially skeptical about playing with Dylan.
LH: No, no. There were other musicians involved at the time and there was no room for any of us. Then some room appeared for Robbie and me to play with them, so the two of us ended up playing it. All together there were five pieces. We got together and had a couple rehearsals to go over the tunes. It sounded like country music to me. I thought the songs were a little bit long. But that’s alright with me.
RF: After you did the Forest Hills gig, technically The Band—or The Crackers, alias The Hawks—joined Dylan. Why didn’t you go on the ’65-’66 tour?
LH: I did some of the American part but I stayed in the Memphis area when the show moved to Sydney, Melbourne and London.
RF: Was it because you weren’t ready?
LH: I just didn’t want to go. We had played the American part and that part was pretty good. But back in those days when you played for some of the folk-purist crowds, the electrical portion, which was us, would get all the booing and the hissing and stuff. After a while it wasn’t a whole lot of fun. It wasn’t like I was ready to go into a hospital and give up or anything like that, but I figured maybe we should practice or something.
RF: Why did you decide to do the rest of it?
LH: Times change, people change, and music changes a little. People’s ears change. We just continued along, the same as always. It was just a shorter tour for me—a shorter dose.
RF: What were some highlights about playing with Dylan?
LH: We certainly owe a lot to our relationship. It’s done a lot for us in everything from trying to construct a song to being able to catch the attention of a recording concern. It’s going to take me a while longer to even understand it all. It was certainly one of the highlights of my musical career to play with Bob, tour with him, and go through some of the times we had a chance to go through together. He’s a great musician and a lot of fun to make music with. He can sit down and make music any time he wants to. Most of the times we played together, it just really suited my style because I like walking on the edge.
RF: From what I understand, Dylan’s show is pretty improvisational.
LH: Yeah boy! Nice and loose. Let’s not over prepare. My man Bob. I’m with you Bobby! You could just about throw away the game plan for a show, which makes a lot of people nervous, but it tickles me.
RF: Isn’t that harder almost?
LH: Hell no! He does it right.
RF: Why do you say that?
LH: That’s the way to do it—get together, run over a few songs, and figure out what key you’re going to do them in. What are you going to do, sit there and beat a blister on your foot? I’d rather save it ’til we have to.
RF: There wasn’t even a set list, was there?
LH: As long as you know what you want to do, it’s okay.
RF: That could make some musicians crazy.
LH: I think most people can roll with it like that. You just go out and play music for an hour or two or three—however long you want to and however much the crowd wants—and when everybody has had a good time, you say goodnight. I can’t put my heart into doing it any other way. I can’t beat a blister on my hand or foot until I’m supposed to. I just don’t feel it.
RF: I would imagine that having to respond to what everybody’s doing instead of preparing something keeps you stimulated.
LH: Yeah, you’ve got to stay on your toes. I like it. It’s skating in the fast lane alright.
RF: There are definite advantages to that. Many people on a tour get really bored with the same thing every night.
LH: I think if they do, they better do some other tunes or something. If you feel like you’re getting into a rut with a song, a night off usually fixes it. Then you can come out and do it fresh. You can do it brand new the next night.
RF: With The Band, you play other instruments, and you are able to get off the drums on occasion. Does that tend to keep you fresh too?
LH: I think so. It’s a lot of fun switching around like that. We always did it mainly to accommodate Garth. Garth’s one of those musicians who can do that stuff in a real way, from woodwinds to brass to keyboards and so on. But it is fun to go over and play mandolin on a song and be a part of the rhythm section from that formation. Then I can go back into the single lane. It’s fun for the music, and the different textures make for different rhythm sections.
RF: You mentioned that working with Dylan helped the members of The Band with their writing.
LH: It sure did. We learned a whole lot from him. We had never done a lot of recording, songwriting, playing shows or anything before we worked with him. All we had really done was try to practice our craft by playing honky-tonks and dance halls.
RF: Did the writing actually start during the time with Dylan?
LH: That’s when it started coming together. That’s when Richard and Robbie, and even the rest of us, got the opportunity to see it that way. All of a sudden it was a new game, so I’m sure that we profited more than Bob. But I know that we had a good time, and I would like to think that we rubbed off a few good things onto him.
RF: Do you feel that you had to change your style when you played with Dylan?
LH: Yeah. I think that we started playing more of ourselves, instead of copying something that we liked and respected or something we knew the crowd wanted to hear. By then we were getting to the age where we would have a little more personal input. So I think that the time and Bob’s influence certainly helped us and encouraged us to play with a more personal style, and to play as well as we could. We learned a lot through that period. Having the opportunity to work with somebody who knows as much as Bob knows about music sure didn’t hurt us a bit.
RF: Then when you began to work exclusively in The Band context, did you find that you were even freer to give your input?
LH: Playing with Bob encouraged that kind of growth because there were no rules, other than that the song should sound good and be fun to play.
RF: He never really suggested how he wanted a song to be played?
LH: Not really. He liked to throw the game plan away and just play. It was different
every night, and as long as there was a key established that we were going to play in, the tempo and melody could change according to the mood. If it was later in the show we might have backed the tempo down a little bit or whatever.
RF: Being the drummer, you probably established the tempo.
LH: Once we got started, I took it wherever I wanted to go. I wish I could play like I’ve heard some of the great studio musicians play over the years, but I just get so excited and carried away with it at times that I can feel my tempo rising. Sometimes I can hear myself laying back too much, but back when we played with Bob, a lot of tunes had really not been played yet, so there were no established arrangements for some of the stuff.
RF: Take me to a Dylan recording session. How did you guys work? Was there much overdubbing?
LH: I’ve never recorded a whole lot with Bob. I’ve had the pleasure a few times, and it was always pretty much the same as the way we played a show. We’d go over the tune, and without beating it to death, try to do it as well as we could. We’d do it once or twice, and then go on to the next one. I’ve never been involved in any overdubs and all that. I don’t think he enjoys that. I’m not real fond of it myself. I have to do it because I can rarely get it right all the time, all the way. Usually I’ll have a brief little stumbling spot in there. I’ll swear to myself that I didn’t lose concentration, but something will just kind of waver there just for a brief instant. When it does, it’s kind of like somebody’s fingernails on a blackboard—my nails and my board.
RF: So you go back and fix it.
LH: Yeah, I have to admit it when the engineer and other musicians look at me. I know they’re right. I hear it too. So I stumble back in there and re-sing it sometimes. But I don’t like to, and I told some other people that from here on out in my life I’m not going to do a damn thing that I don’t want to do, unless I just have to.
RF: Do you prefer live performing to recording?
LH: Yes I do. Playing live is more fun.
RF: Any particular reason?
RF: Instant feedback?
LH: Yeah. Instant electricity. The crowd is just as important as the group. It takes everything to make it work.
RF: Who was the first person you recorded with?
LH: I guess Ronnie Hawkins. I’ve never been what you would call “in demand” for sessions. I’ve played a few sessions with some friends and I like to do it. I’m one of those slow learners. I have to do it a few times usually to get it right, so I work on those “special” projects.
RF: A studio is a whole different thing. Even the way you have to hit the drum is different. It’s not quite as spontaneous.
LH: You take a guy like Roger Hawkins, from Muscle Shoals, and he could write a book just on the different ways that you can hit a drum, the ways to tune that same drum, the different frequencies, responses and attacks that you can get from it, the difference in the way you hold your stick, the grip that you use, and the size of stick. He’s one of those people, like Keltner, who can walk into a room, look at the room and know which cymbals are going to sound the best for that microphone. They have developed their ears to such a fine degree of hearing that it’s amazing. It’s a wonderful lesson in concentration.
RF: Certainly you’re aware of the elements you were suggesting Roger could write a book about.
LH: Sure. I care and I really appreciate those who can do it. I enjoy, as much as anybody—except maybe them—the fact that they can do it.
RF: But Levon, you’ve been tuning drums for how long now?
LH: Well, I’ve tuned mine for a while.
RF: Then you must have a method that you use.
LH: I have my own method, but I take a lot of ideas from others. I listen, and that is where I learn how to clean up my sound, how to get my records to sound clean and how to approach it. On the Big Pink album, those tom-tom sounds are tuned a certain way so that they’ll dip. You can hit it and the attack dips down; it makes a note and descends. Now you can get an electronic drum that does that. You can also do it on a regular drum with plastic heads by loosening the top head and tightening the bottom head. The bottom head needs to be as tight as the top head is loose. Then you get right opposite each other on two of your lugs and you start with your fingers, not a key, to tighten down. You can see it, especially under a florescent light and in a studio circumstance. You can stop, take your finger and hit. As you tighten it, you can see where the vibrations will form. The skin will be too loose everywhere except for a thin band right across the middle of the drum. You’re tightening that by just turning opposite lugs from each other across the drum. You tighten that little band, you hit it, you’ll see the vibrations run across the drum and it will hit that band of tenseness. There’s where it will catch, make the sound, and then leave that and dip down. So you can sit around and play with that; it takes about 15 or 20 minutes of fooling with it. I’ve tried to tune tom-toms to certain notes. I’ve had a little success with it, but nothing really to speak of.
Drums usually seem to tune themselves. When you set them up, get the balances, get your cymbal heights and so on, if they sound in tune to you, usually the music, the key, the pitch and everything will just pull the drums into that mode. I’ve tried on occasion to play around with tuning a little bit. It’s not a bad idea for certain songs where, for example, you are carrying the backbeat on a tom-tom, like Al Jackson did on a lot of the later Memphis stuff. It might be a good idea for those kinds of songs.
RF: When you started talking about tuning, you mentioned the Big Pink album. Do you still tune the same way?
LH: No. I would tune that way for a certain kind of song. Generally, I’ve got to have enough response as far as getting my heads tight, so I will get a good bounce from my sticks. As soon as that’s accomplished, I have to try to remember not to go overboard with my bottom end. I have to get some pitch into the tubs. I have a tendency to get them way down deep, so I have to constantly bring them back up to pitch and tighten up the snares again. But I like more of a padded sort of a sound for my set. I’ll usually throw a wallet on the snare drum, or a cloth, a towel, or tape. Sometimes a cymbal won’t sound good to me until I put a piece of tape somewhere on it. Then it starts sounding right. And sometimes I want it off.
RF: And that’s just hit and miss?
LH: Yeah, the room, the night, my ear, or the weather—it all changes.
RF: You mentioned before that you liked to muffle a lot.
LH: Well, I can play louder if I do that. [laughs] I don’t get as many complaints.
RF: What about equipment?
LH: I’ve always been sort of a Gretsch-Ludwig man myself. Those used to be the ones that would hold up well on the road. They were made real heavy and could even carry a Fender amplifier on their backs for a good long road trip in the back of a car or something.
RF: What did you play with Dylan and The Band?
LH: I probably had a set of Gretsch or Ludwig at the time. Since then I played some Yamaha drums that I like a lot. And I like the Yamaha people a lot too. They’ve been really nice to me and The Band, as well as very supportive and accommodating. Now when I play, my set is kind of a hybrid set. I’ve got a little bit of everything in there. I’ve got a couple of different bass drums that I like and that travel well. I’ve got a couple of tom-toms that are louder. They don’t have to match as long as I’ve got a 13″ or 14″ tenor tom, a 15″ or 16″ baritone tom and a good snare drum. I usually prefer just a regular wooden snare. I stay away from the all-chrome snares.
RF: Why do you prefer wood?
LH: I like that wood sound better. I have some old Ludwig drums that I found in a pawnshop out in L.A. that have wooden rims and are real old. I’ve cut records with them. They are thin-ply drums and have a different sound. They don’t travel well sometimes, though, with the weather and the night air. My hybrid set now is a Ludwig snare, some Gretsch tom-toms, a Ludwig bass and some Zildjian cymbals. I usually like a couple of those, a good set of sock cymbals and a couple of cowbells. That’s about as far as I usually take it.
RF: Like you said, all you need is what you have. Sometimes, what you don’t play makes a statement better than what you play.
LH: The old saying “It ain’t what you play; it’s what you don’t play and what you leave out,” is true.
RF: That’s something I get from your playing.
LH: I’ve heard that. With drums you’ve got to be careful because they can get irri tating. I don’t think it’s quite as easy for drummers to practice on their own, so I use Bob’s policy myself. I don’t overprepare. [laughs]
RF: What kind of heads do you use?
LH: Standard stuff. Usually just Remo plastic heads. They’re the only ones that will travel well in all kinds of weather. There’s a textured snare head that’s pretty good. I usually stay away from the clears.
RF: What kind of stick do you use?
LH: About a 7A I guess—a smaller stick. I try to play as hard as I can without breaking them. That seems to be acoustically correct too, when you’re having fun.
RF: You hit hard but you don’t really like a real power bass.
LH: No. I just like it to attack on occasion, then back off. Then you save it up, too. Sometimes you need to have that consistent pattern to lay the pulse in. Sometimes the pulse doesn’t want to be shown like that.
RF: Have you used any effects on the drums at all?
LH: No, nothing other than different echoes and things like that—chamber or the board echoes. We did a little trick once, singing through a hose. That’s kind of interesting.
RF: A voice box?
LH: Yeah, you run it through an instrument. Then you run the hose into your mouth, sing, and play whatever notes correspond. They’ll come through that hose while you hold it in the corner of your mouth. It’s like your voice coming out plus an instrument coming through there.
RF: Did you do that on record?
LH: Yeah, we did. It’s on a tune by Frogman Henry called “Ain’t Got No Home.”
RF: How important is the bass player drummer relationship?
LH: It’s very important. Those two can make it a whole lot easier on the guitar player and the piano player by tightening it right up. When you can work with someone the way Phil Upchurch and Al Duncan worked together, and when you can record and have that opportunity to listen to yourselves and be able to critique each other, that’s when those combinations have a chance to start really working well. Any combination of musicians you can think of who play consistently together, have some good things going about their approach to a song. That song “King Harvest” has one of those bass drum kind of pulse things. The bass goes with it in that regard. It sets up the backbeat. It kind of leaves that gap and that over-the-edge kind of effect to it. When it gets down to the chorus, it kind of rears back and starts swinging through the chorus. Then the bass starts more of a walking-type pattern—more of a traditional and more melodic bass line. Then the bass drum starts to support the landing zones as you circle through the chord progression there.
RF: Would you say that there is an approach of, say, playing behind the beat?
LH: That’s the way it kind of sounds. That’s the way I’ve heard that explained by people who can hear it right off the bat. They can hear certain players and know where they are from by the way they play. For me, that late, leave-a-pocket-for-the-backbeat style is the Memphis way of playing, like they do in Muscle Shoals. It’s a country, R&B kind of feel. I don’t know, maybe it’s the old echo that was on the Sun Records or something—that old doghouse bass fiddle before a snare drum, when it would slap on those records. But it does sound most comfortable and it feels the best to me when I can get it right in there just when it hits in that real soft spot. There’s a real soft spot right in there. When I can lay it in that place I like it the best. To me, it gives the song breathing room and it keeps the dynamics of the song in proportion. I wish I could do it any way I wanted to, but it just doesn’t sound right to me any other way. I feel like I’m incorrect at times, too, mainly when I pick it up just a little bit or lag it back a little. You’ve got to keep that sort of thing together. Lord, it’s worse than a fine-tooth comb. When the song wants to pick up and go a little faster towards the end, its hard for me to resist.
RF: Can you think of certain favorite or fun Dylan and/or The Band tracks that you’ve done and how they came together?
LH: I could tell you which songs I like. “Forever Young” by Dylan is one of my favorite songs. It’s a great song. But I don’t know, I just enjoy them.
RF: What about favorite Band projects?
LH: I remember our Rock Of Ages album. That was a good night. The album was live and I’m glad now that we recorded it. I was having so much fun at the time, though, that I wouldn’t have cared either way. Everything just seemed logo right. Nobody’s concentration was affected by anything. If you pour some music on whatever’s wrong, it’ll sure help out. My favorite albums that we did were the ones where we worked with Alan Toussaint, who is one of the great musical minds of our time. That was a lot of fun. I love horns, and the bigger the band, the better it sounds to my ear. It was great hearing Snookie Young over there hitting that top trumpet note. That’s first class.
RF: Can you think of particular Band tunes you like?
LH: “King Harvest” is one. I really like the bass drum pattern and then we left a corresponding hole for the backbeat. That was one track where I got my drums sounding the way I wanted them to. There’s enough wood in the sound. You could hear the stick, the bell of the cymbal and so on. You have to realize it’s been a while since I’ve done some of this stuff, and honest to God, I don’t listen to it. I enjoyed everything we did. I had a good time with it. Sometimes we would have to record a song for a while, until the song would come on and we could cultivate it voice-wise, arrangement-wise, and get all the choruses straight. So I enjoyed them. I think all musicians want that advantage of being able to listen to themselves. That’s when you have a chance to get a track that you like. You’ve got the chance to hear yourself. You can go back, take a little tape off the snare drum or fix things around to get your kit sounding right. Then you can really correct some of your mistakes and play those things that sound better.
The fun part of it, for me, was always to go in, record and get the songs right. If we couldn’t get a song right, we’d just take the last cut we had of it, put it over to the side and go on to something else rather than get bogged down with the tune. Later on we’d double back. “Cripple Creek” was one of those songs. It took a long time for us to get that one in the right slot. I can’t remember how it was when we first started, but it was a couple of basic ideas that Robbie had and that Richard had worked on a bit. Then we all started working on it and it just took time for the song to seep into us. It was like it just had to simmer with everybody, so everybody could find where the song really was.
RF: When I watched The Last Waltz again recently, I had this overwhelming feeling, particularly when you guys played the Neil Diamond and Neil Young tunes, that there was a real distinct style. Can you tell me what you feel the components of that sound are?
LH: Probably what Garth does to our rhythm section and just how he makes his sound. And everybody really enjoys playing, you know. It’s an honest effort, though, to blend it in there just right and give them the best support they could ever want, hopefully.
RF: I think a lot of the music’s feel comes from the drums.
LH: It’s just that a lot of our songs are in that rhythm—sort of lean as opposed to more free flowing.
RF: A real pocket.
LH: It’s not a hesitation, but it’s just more rhythmic.
RF: Everyone describes The Band as kind of loose.
LH: I don’t blame them, [laughs] I would too. You can’t fool them all the time.
RF: Obviously, as we sit here and laugh about it, it’s not all that loose, because you made records and you played those records live.
LH: A few times.
RF: So there had to be some sort of a structure involved there.
LH: Oh yeah, sure. There are verses and choruses, kickoffs and endings. We all love musical architecture; there’s no doubt about that.
RF: When recording with The Band, how much freedom did you have to create what you did?
LH: We’ve always had whatever we needed. There were never any rules. We didn’t know any, so most of our stuff was trial and error. It wasn’t like there was ever any lack of or too much freedom or responsibility. You live with a tape recorder, you turn it on, you play the song and you listen to it. You hear what you’re doing and try to smooth it out, get it better and get your part correct.
RF: But whoever wrote the tune didn’t come in and say, “Play such and such.” You had the freedom to create your part.
LH: Well, if Robbie or Richard would come in with a piece of a song or an idea for a song and we would start working on it, after a while it would fit or it wouldn’t fit. We’d have to work on it, more or less, to find out certain things about it, like who should try to sing it.
RF: How are those decisions made?
LH: Just by playing the songs and experimenting with them. After trial and error, you can either make it come around or you can’t. By the time we would be ready to record a song, we would usually have tried it different ways, and we would know for sure that it was the best way we could do it. We didn’t care about who did the song, what instrument we played, or anything like that. When we changed it around, and Richard played drums, and I played mandolin, we were always looking to have some fun.
RF: The Band performed its last show on Thanksgiving 1976. Were you ready for it to end when it did?
LH: Well, yeah. I’m ready for whatever the day is, but it wasn’t my idea. If I had to make that decision on my own, I don’t know if I would have made it or not. But I was just as happy as anybody else to turn a new page and start out on some new projects. I never subscribe to the stay-at-home policy. I’m not sick of the road or sick of eating in good restaurants around the country. I like to travel and go to Japan, go to the sushi bars and sleep late every day.
I was just concerned with having a good time. I was thankful as hell that a few people took the time to listen to it. The longer it went, the more the new wore off. By the time The Band did The Last Waltz, the chemistry had changed, and it wasn’t a big thrill anymore to live that studio kind of life. It was a whole lot of fun at first, but after a while it got to be enough. It used to take us a reasonable amount of time to get it to where we felt we could live with it. The chemistry has got to be right, and I think, as we got down towards the end of our contract with Capitol Records, it had grown from a privilege and pleasure into an obligation. I don’t know how all that stuff happens, but you do need to keep a good perspective on it. Everybody had other ideas, other projects and different adventures they wanted to have, so The Last Waltz was a good idea at that time.
RF: You did some of your solo projects in Muscle Shoals.
LH: Right. I went down to Muscle Shoals and cut one, and then I went to Nashville and cut one. Then I went back down to Muscle Shoals and cut another with Jimmy Johnson and the boys.
RF: Was the recording experience different there?
LH: I think it’s a more relaxed atmosphere. They’ve just got an easy way of going about it. Their musicians are excellent, as we all know, so it is a pleasure any time.
RF: You did a tour called the Muscle Shoals All-Stars with Russell Smith, formerly of the Amazing Rhythm Aces. How did that come about?
LH: Just another little project that kind of came through. It was just another oppor tunity to have a good time, play some shows and cut some songs. Good times don’t last long sometimes, but it was fun while it lasted.
RF: Why did you use double drummers for the Muscle Shoals All-Stars and the recent Band reunion concerts?
LH: It’s fun when we both play together on a song and just kick the hell out of it with four arms and four legs. There are some numbers we can do that on, and then there are other numbers where one of us will play more of a percussion idea and let the other one carry the body of the song. I think it’s just better musically. It’s like having the other Cate Brothers’ voices. [The Cate Brothers are opening the reunion shows as well performing with The Band.] All the Cate Brothers sing and they sing well, so when we play together, even if we do one of our old tunes, the tune sounds better having three keyboards instead of two, and five voices instead of three. It sounds like more fun and it is.
RF: What was it like doing solo projects after you’d been working within a unit for so long?
LH: It was a good time in a lot of respects, but it was a little bit of frustration in some other respects. I never could quite get a solo project to flip over just right in a commercial sort of way. There were two or three albums which were okay, but they never sold. So there is the frustration of trying to do as well on your own as you can with your buddies, and you’ve got to live with that.
RF: How did acting enter into your life?
LH: Pure luck and just good circumstance. I know Tommy Lee Jones and he was bighearted enough to mention me to Michael Apted. Michael Apted, by the grace of God, called me and gave me the job in Coal Miner’s Daughter. I didn’t have a Hollywood agent or anybody to do it for me. Everybody was wonderful, and it was such a good movie that it made anybody connected with it look good.
RF: Talking about being bighearted, sometimes I think somebody who is sensi tive, like you are, can be eaten up by this industry. It can be ruthless at times. Is it difficult being a “good ol’ boy”?
LH: Well, the world is ruthless, but hell, I’m like everybody else. I’m happiest if things are going well, and if things are going slow, I’m itchy. I don’t have any horror stories about bad experiences.
RF: Not horror stories, but just how somebody with a heart of gold deals with the industry. It must be very hard sometimes.
LH: I’m sure everybody else’s heart is just as tender as mine. We’re all dealt with the same hand here, so to speak. I feel like I’ve had it a lot better than most people. I’ve had the opportunity to travel and play music just about all my life. Hell, I haven’t cultivated cotton since I was 17.
RF: Did you do that?
LH: Sure. So it looks like a pretty good deal to me. I have nothing but good reports. I don’t have a lot of that experience that you’re talking about. The rock star stuff never came up for us. The Band was never attacked by groupies before, during or after any show that we ever played. We never played that many shows to begin with. It’s been straight up and down for me. I used to play for dances, and now I play for dances, records and sometimes TV shows. I’ve just had the opportunity to do more. The Band never really played big concert tours. We never sold millions and millions of albums, so I don’t know about that.
RF: What caused the Band reunion?
LH: Good luck and good friends. Some good promoters and people up in Canada wanted to see if we’d play. They put a tour together, and we played it and had a pretty good time doing it. When Rick and I have played together in the Woodstock area and when I have traveled around with the Cate boys, people have always asked when The Band would get back together.
RF: Will The Band continue to tour?
LH: I hope so. If Garth says yes, we will. Garth is the key—the one who will rub off on the rest of us and make the rest of us sound real good too. If everybody wants to, that’s the most fun you can have. It always has been for me. I like to get within handshaking distance of the crowd. If it happens, they know it, we know it and that’s all we came there for.