A singer, instrumentalist, and songwriter with a rich pedigree, Amy Helm was a veteran performer with years of recording and touring experience under her belt before she first stepped forward as a solo artist in her forties. A lifelong musician and music lover, Helm's parents — the Band's legendary drummer and singer Levon Helm and singer/songwriter Libby Titus — guided her training and influences. As a founding member of the alt-country collective Ollabelle and a backing musician in her father's Midnight Ramble Band, her signature is an instantly recognizable, grainy, soulful alto that coaxes subtle shades of meaning from any song lyrics she chooses to sing and inhabits the spaces between them with a receptive yet authoritative presence. Her unique phrasing — as displayed on her 2015 debut Didn't It Rain — resides in the spectral musical terrain between country, gospel, blues, and folk.
Amy Helm was born in Woodstock, New York on December 3, 1970; her father was Levon Helm, the drummer and vocalist with the iconic roots rockers the Band, and her mother was Libby Titus, a singer and songwriter whose songs had been recorded by artists such as Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, and Carly Simon. By the time Helm was six years old, her parents had split up, and she went to live with her mother, who was then in a relationship with Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John; Rebennack was good friends with Levon Helm, and Amy remained close to her father. By the time she was attending Manhattan's Trinity School, she was in a singing group with her friends called the Chilly Winds, and her tastes leaned toward R&B and hip-hop acts such as Cameo, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, and Run-D.M.C.
That began to change when Helm was 17 and started listening to her father's music, starting with the Band's debut album, Music from Big Pink. She soaked up her father's tastes in vintage blues and gospel, and also began striking out in a new direction as a performer. In 1993, Helm made her recording debut: singing backing vocals on Donald Fagen's album Kamakiriad (once again keeping it in the family, as Fagen had married Libby Titus that same year). She also performed in the studio and on tour with the reunited Steely Dan. In 2002, Amy teamed up with a handful of New York roots musicians to form the group Ollabelle, which fused bluegrass and gospel flavors into a sound that earned them a powerful reputation with critics. Ollabelle released their self-titled debut album in 2004, with Levon Helm making a guest appearance as drummer on one track. That year also marked the first of a series of house party-style shows that Levon Helm staged at the recording studio installed in a restored barn on his property; Levon had suffered a serious bout with throat cancer, and the monthly shows, known as "the Midnight Rambles," gave him a chance to return to performing in a comfortable setting as well as play music with friends for fans. Amy was one of the organizers of the Midnight Ramble concerts, and Ollabelle were frequent guests on the bill; as Levon's health improved, he resumed touring, with Amy playing mandolin and singing as part of his road band.
Amy had begun work on a solo album with the Midnight Ramble band when her father died on April 19, 2012; determined to keep the studio open, she continued to host concerts at Levon's barn, and began working with a new band, Amy Helm & the Handsome Strangers. As Amy's new band gained strength from their live work and she became more confident as a bandleader and lead vocalist, she opted to re-record much of the material on her album, though three songs with Levon on drums would make the final cut. In July 2015, Amy released her first solo album, Didn't It Rain, and that same summer, she set out on a joint concert tour with Mavis Staples and Patty Griffin. With universal critical acclaim for her album, Helm toured for nearly two years, and during breaks continued to run the Midnight Ramble. Three years later, Helm left her home and comfort zone of Woodstock, New York for Los Angeles and four days of recording with producer Joe Henry and his stable of musicians. They were directed not to overthink the songs — Helm had barely performed any of the tunes leading up to the recording. These sessions forged a fast musical trust between the various collaborators. Although a fine songwriter in her own right, Helm and Henry jointly arranged a diverse collection of songs for the record, ranging from Rod Stewart's "Mandolin Wind" and Allen Toussaint's "Freedom for the Stallion" to the Milk Carton Kids' "Michigan." The set was issued by Yep Roc on the first day of fall in 2018. ~ Mark Deming