Although the majority of Shelley King’s tracks Lift up your heels Shining a spotlight on her fiery guitar and rooftop-rocking voice, there’s another artist whose presence springs from the deep, gritty grooves of Austin’s ninth album and musician Americana: Levon Helm. The band’s legendary drummer and singer, who died in 2012, inspired the LP’s first track, a loving tribute titled “Levon’s New Drum Set”.
In the album’s dramatic opening moments, the sounds of rolling thunder and a torrential downpour echo one of the songwriting inspirations, which King made in Woodstock, New York, the home of Helm’s long standing and the location of his musical jam sessions known as the Midnight Hike.
Like Helm, King was born in Arkansas and was fortunate enough to play with Helm at the Ramble. She also became close to the daughter of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, musician Amy Helm, as well as his widow, Sandy. Land of rolling stones spoke to King about Helm’s influence, her drummer tribute song, and the unlikely but crucial role she played in reuniting her long-divorced parents.
How well do you know Levon Helm?
I met Levon in 2009 and had the opportunity to perform with him at a Midnight Ramble. I must be in Carolyn Wonderland’s group. She was there recording and I was recording with her and I met her. We did the Ramble and I got up and sang “The Weight” in the grand finale, with Levon and the Ramble band. It was a great opportunity to meet him. I didn’t get to know him very well, but he was still hanging out when we were in the studio that week. I was able to go back and do another Ramble in early 2011. Then in 2012 I was on tour there. At the end of my tour, I wanted to go to Woodstock and hang out with some friends that I made. I checked the schedule and saw that there was a hike going on. I was so excited to go to the Ramble that I booked a small bed and breakfast there for a few days, but he passed away on Thursday before the Ramble was supposed to be held on Saturday.
How did you find out?
I was playing in New York. I had just entered town. I had just come out of the Holland Tunnel and heard it on the radio. It was really heavy. I went to my concert and people were like, “Are you going to play one for Levon?” I said, “Everything I play will be for Levon!” The next day I went to Woodstock and wanted to at least spend the time I had booked to spend there even though there would be no hike.
How did the writing of “Levon’s New Drum Set” come about?
On Saturday I sat outside on the porch and tried to write lyrics. All day long this storm hit the mountains you can see at Woodstock, Overlook Mountain. It was a little threatening to rain all day. Around the time the Ramble would have started, if it had happened, the storm raged with incredible intensity. There were all these hard-hitting sounds in the storm. Electricity started going out and coming back. Next to me on the porch was a gutter and water was gushing through the gutter, gushing over a rock, falling very heavily. It hit me, what if it was the Ramble? All the sound I heard was so amazing, I thought, what if Levon was playing his new drums?
The weather is sort of a recurring theme on the album. What inspired you with Marcia Ball to write “Hurricane Party”?
We love to go out walking the trails here in Austin. It had been a while since I had given her ideas for this record and had gotten some advice from her. I was walking one morning when I got a text from her saying she was in Florida but coming back early because her concert had been canceled due to an upcoming hurricane. We love to play dominoes together. We have a whole bunch of girls playing dominoes so she said maybe we could play. I said, “Yes, we can throw a hurricane party. I was walking the path and these ideas were spinning in my head. I sent her a text and a chorus and she answered me with a verse and a bridge. We were throwing lyrics back and forth and before we knew it we had a song. We got together later and hammered the music.
Of all the songs on the album, however, “Heart of a Girl” probably has the most unique story behind it.
I wrote this about my parents. They met again at one of my concerts. They had been divorced since I was a baby and saw each other at one of my shows and started emailing each other and meeting on weekends. Before I knew it, they were in love. Now they have remarried for 13 years. It is quite amazing. My mom has always been that tough, independent kind of woman “I don’t need anyone, I can do it on my own”. Then, when I saw her fall back in love with my father, I saw this sweet and innocent girl. It was completely magnificent.