There are musical parents, as they say, and then there are musical parents. Amy Helm had the latter.
Her father was the late Levon Helm, who went from being the singing drummer for iconic roots music purveyors The Band to developing his own storied, Grammy Award-winning career. Daughter Amy co-produced her father’s “Dirt Farmer,” winner of the 2008 Grammy for best traditional folk album. Amy Helm sang and played multiple instruments, including drums, on that record, and came to FloydFest to play and sing with him in 2010.
Her mother is singer and songwriter Libby Titus, who wrote with Carly Simon and Burt Bacharach. A long list of performers including Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Cash, Rita Coolidge and Simon recorded “Love Has No Pride,” which Titus co-wrote. After Titus and Levon Helm split up, she began a relationship with Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, and they wrote music together. Titus in 1993 married Donald Fagen, of Steely Dan, yet another musical influence for Amy Helm.
Helm, who picked up a lot of musical knowledge from her mother, father and others in their respective circles, last year released her second album, “This Too Shall Light,” and is touring this summer, with a stop scheduled for Wednesday at Rocky Mount’s Harvester Performance Center. If it seems now that Levon Helm, who died in 2012, and Dr. John, who died last month, have become practically deified in roots music circles, Amy Helm remembers when they were far less known.
“When I was growing up, my dad and Mac and all of them, they didn’t have the stature and the kind of iconic respect that they have now,” Helm said. “They were obscure blues musicians, to most people I knew. It wasn’t like I was growing up as a pop star’s kid.”
She met “a handful” of her friends’ parents who would recognize her last name and tell her they loved The Band, she said. But it wasn’t a big part of her identity growing up in the 1970s and into the 1980s.
“It wasn’t until I was older and embraced music as my own career that I realized and came to learn how to hold that legacy, in a way,” Helm, 48, said. “I think I’ve been lucky in that sense. It’s a lot easier. Everything gets easier as you get older, certainly handling that, and handling my perception of it and the reality of it ... the projections that people will put on to it. All that stuff, which, you know, happens with famous parents, [can also happen] with parents who aren’t famous. Someone’s mom is everybody’s favorite teacher in a small community. There’s always that dynamic.
“In music, at least in my experience, that can get exaggerated a little bit. But I feel very grateful to have known all these incredible musicians and have them as teachers. I feel pretty centered about it, I have to say. That’s a lucky kind of result of having grown up the way I described.”
Both the DNA, and experiences including a well-rounded sense of music from her parents’ disparate record collections, have shown up on records and stages. She was a key part of her father’s Midnight Ramble outfit, and she co-founded the Americana/bluegrass band Ollabelle, which played FloydFest in 2009. Her first album under her own name, “Didn’t It Rain,” features much of her own co-writing, while “This Too Shall Light,” produced by Joe Henry, leans into covers of Milk Carton Kids, Allen Toussaint and her pop’s old bandmate, Robbie Robertson. The next album, which is in the gestational stages, will likely be more of a mix between originals and covers.
“I feel like whatever is the strongest musical foot forward is the way to go,” she said. “I really do like interpreting material if it’s the right fit for my voice. All the singers that made me want to become a singer are the ones who really got good at the craft of interpretation, learning how to deliver different stories and playing with the narrative of it.”
At the center of both records is her powerful and deeply soulful voice, supported by strong harmonies.
“I have great harmony singers with me always, and this is no exception,” she said from her van, which during our conversation last Wednesday was leaving her home in Woodstock, New York, for the first date of the tour. “Brandon and Will, the younger guys coming out on tour with us this month, are excellent singers.”
That’s bassist Brandon Morrison and keyboardist Will Bryant, who are part of the upcoming generation of Woodstock musicians, she said. Mark Marshall will be on guitar, and Tony Mason — who has played with John Scofield, Norah Jones, Joan Osborne and Bernie Worrell — will be on drums.
“Everything is cool when you’ve got Tony Mason,” she said. “This is something that I’ve come to discover, that you can do the [lousiest] gig ever, but if you’ve got Mason on the kit, it’s going to sound really damn good, and you know it sounds good, so everything else falls by the wayside.”
A while back, this reporter happened upon an Instagram video of Cris Jacobs Band, which occasionally plays Southwest Virginia, featuring Helm on drums. Objectively speaking, her groove was as solid as a soul could want, and her sound was solid, too.
One might think that she spent years learning the drumming craft from her father, but that isn't quite true, she said. She always had a beat that she could play really well without having to work on it, which enabled her to cut tracks on "Dirt Farmer" and to move back to the kit with Ollabelle when that band's drummer moved up front for a song, she said. Recently, she is pursuing the drums set wholeheartedly, taking lessons from Mason and a jazz drummer, Eric Parker, of Woodstock.
"I’ve never … actually tried to develop some technique and try to sustain for more than a tune or two," she said. "So it’s something that feels natural on one hand but completely unpracticed, I guess."
She's even joined a band in which she'll be the full-time drummer.
"When you’re just beginning an instrument in your mid- to late-40s, it’s truly humbling," she said. "But being humbled can be very wonderful, and it can be a nice experience. So it was a nice combination for me of humble and terrified."
The timing was that we spoke with Helm not long after Dr. John's death, so we could not ignore that subject, as you read above.
"He had been sick for a long time, and I think to tell you the truth I was surprised that he hadn’t passed sooner, because he had not been in great shape in the last couple of years," she said. "So I think he’s in a better place. I think when someone is that sick that long, there is a relief in seeing them shed that physical strife and move on to something that’s surely better. I think he’s in a good place, and he was truly one of a kind — one-of-a-kind musician and human being."
The Harvester gig will be Helm's first in Southwest Virginia leading her own act. What can folks expect from the show?
"I really try to do a set that really takes the audience on a bit of a trip," she said. "I think live music is so powerful and so much fun. My show is a lot more energized and up than people expect it to be. But I do try to shine a light on each of the players I have, and really try to make some smart musical choices to write a set list that shows everybody’s strengths, [in which] the rock 'n' roll electric guitar solo is just as loud as the beautiful, angelic harmonies on a soft acoustic song.
"I’m feeling pretty confident about how the flow of the set is, and I think people should come ready to dance and have a good time."