Clarksville Mayor remembers life with Levon

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 194 views 

Before Levon Helm became a music legend and film star, he lived so far out in the Phillips County, Ark., hinterlands that he and his cousin Billy Helms had to ride a tractor in the winters to survive the trek to the gravel road where they would finally be able to catch the school bus.

“We lived pretty far out there in the country,” said Helms, who is now the mayor of Clarksville, Ark.

Helms talked on Tuesday (April 24) about his memories of growing up with a first cousin who would one day take the world by storm with his vast musical talents and a natural charm and appeal that translated to film success.

Levon Helm, best known as a singer and drummer in the Canadian group, “The Band,” died April 19 after a long bout with throat cancer. A memorial for Levon is planned for Thursday (April 26) at his famous studio in Woodstock, N.Y.

Helm was born May 26, 1940, in Phillips County, to Nell and Diamond Helm.

“He saw the birth of rock and roll and though he’s too much of a gentleman to say it, his role in helping to keep that rebellious child healthy is more than just instrumental,” noted a biography Dawn LoBue wrote for Levon Helm Studios. “During a career that has spanned over five decades, Levon Helm has nurtured a tradition of professionalism with a deep respect for his craft and remains refreshingly genuine in a world that often compromises integrity. He is a master storyteller who weaves his tales with the magic thread of universality that ties us all. He beckons us to come in, sit awhile and enjoy. We see ourselves in his stories and we are home.”

Mayor Helms’ father and Levon’s father were brothers. Helms literally grew up with Levon, and for a few years lived in the same house. (And more later on how Levon “lost” the “s” from his last name.)

“We were pretty close,” Helms said.

Helms was there to see Levon and his sister, Linda, begin playing various musical instruments. In area talent shows, Levon would play guitar and Linda would “do something with a washtub and a broom handle,” Helms explained.

“But they was good. … They won several of those talent contests,” he said.

Helms said he and Levon were “very mischievous” but never got into trouble.

“We were very poor people” but Levon was “a very popular kid in school” because of his personality and musical talents, Helms said.

Billy and Levon worked side-by-side in a local grocery store. Levon was also a decent football player. He played halfback on the high school team.

“But his first love wasn’t football, it was his music,” said Helms, who was one grade ahead of Levon.

That love of music took him to Canada after graduation. It was there that Levon hooked up with Ronnie Hawkins and they played “in a lot of small places, you know, with a lot of boot stomping and beer drinking,” Helms said with a laugh.

Helms, who joined the military after high school, wasn’t around for Levon’s early rise. But they did stay in touch. The primary reason they stayed in touch is because Levon never forgot his family or where he was from.

“He never changed. He was just Levon Helm from Phillips County, Arkansas,” Helms said. “He absolutely never met a stranger, … and he never, ever, let any of all that (success) go to his head. He was just Levon. … And even when he’d be really tired and people would be around and want to see him or talk, he’d go and talk to them like he wasn’t (tired).”

The reality of Levon’s success was first realized by Billy when Levon asked him to travel with him.

“I was here in Clarksville then, so when he asked me about going to Paris, I thought he was talking about our Paris, Arkansas, here. … But he called and asked about the tickets, if I had tickets for Paris. And he was talking about Paris, Europe. … I thought, ‘Uh-oh, I can’t keep up with this boy no more,’” Helms said, again laughing through the memory.

But Helms did get to see Levon play.

“It was always an absolute great time to be around him. … I guess I’m a little prejudiced, but if there’s a better drummer in America, I’d sure like to meet him,” Helms said.

As to how Levon “lost” the “s” in his last name, Billy Helms isn’t sure how that happened.

“There were four of those Helms brothers, and two of them dropped the "s". … I don’t guess I really know why,” Helms explained.

Helms does remember the last visit with Levon. It was in Clarksville, about two years ago. Levon was traveling through Clarksville in his tour bus. They talked about growing up together; the old times; the hard times; the good times.

“We’d also talk about all the places he got to play and who he was with. … I’ll tell you, he had a great life. He really did,” Helms said of his cousin.