Call her a soul singer. While Amy Helm is a musician rooted in blues, gospel, old-school R&B and the country and folk that make up the catch-all of modern Americana, her love is soul music. Her 2015 release, “Didn’t it Rain,” and 2018’s “This Too Shall Light” pack a punch of soul that lives comfortably within her brand of roots rock.
Amy Helm will perform tonight at the Henry Strater Theatre; it’s a show produced by KSUT Public Radio.
“My first loves were Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix; they are the first four I fell totally in love with,” Helm said. “Then I was drawn more to soul music and soul singers; from Aretha, I got into Stax (records) singers, and I did listen to a bunch of jazz singers as well. And Dolly Parton rounding out the country side with that soulful approach.”
In addition to Helm’s two solo efforts, she’s credited on 50-some records, singing alongside the likes of Donald Fagen, Mercury Rev and Rosanne Cash. She was a member of festival favorites Olabelle before backing her father, Levon Helm (drummer, mandolin and one of the vocalists from The Band) in his Midnight Ramble Band. Her resumé and lineage places her right in the throngs of American roots music, and the woman has the pipes to back it all up. She’s a singer who can belt out a big blues-rock tune just as easy as she can break your heart when she’s owning a ballad, all while backed by a band made up of some of Woodstock, New York’s finest musicians.
It’s important to recognize her father as someone who had a role in getting Amy to the point she is at now within her music career. She had sung in choir and studied piano, but she could have just as easily gone in a non-musical direction. With a push from her dad and other music teachers, she followed the muse, which not only strengthened her own self as a musician, it strengthened the bond with her father.
“He very much encouraged me, especially in my 20s, to really stop pursuing other things and really try to commit myself full time to music. I think it was because of that push from him that I stuck with it. Between him and so many great music teachers and great peers, it kind of revealed itself to me, and I think that most players and most singers have that happen. You get to an age where this is what you’re going to do and you can’t really deny it anymore, you jump in,” Helm said. “A profound time with me in my life was doing the Ramble Band and building the Midnight Ramble at Woodstock. So, I did that for a number of years but then naturally walked into a place in my heart and in my head where I felt it was time to do something on my own. My dad was really encouraging and wanting to see me do that. He was a real teacher to me and a real guide for me in my life.”
Aside from making music, spending time on the road fulfills a personal need to meet people; touring is the thing that gives her that opportunity, a shared ideal and fringe benefit of the job shared by many musicians.
“It’s the two hours on stage that make all of us keep jumping in these vans and driving all over the country. It’s the moment when you get to connect with an audience, and hopefully, move some people, make them feel good for a couple of hours,” Helm said. “That’s the payoff.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at email@example.com.