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Levon Helm, soul of The Band, rambles on

By Quinn Brown, CNN
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Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble
  • Levon Helm had throat cancer, was facing huge medical bills
  • Former Band drummer and vocalist started music bash at his house
  • Concerts have become the Midnight Ramble
  • Helm has won two Grammy Awards in recent years
  • Music
  • Grammy Awards

Woodstock, New York (CNN) -- When the last decade began, Levon Helm was voiceless and nearly homeless.

The Band's drummer, whose treasured drawl gave soul to rock 'n' roll classics such as "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," was fighting several battles. Throat cancer had taken his voice. Medical bills were threatening his house.

"You got to pick one -- pay your medical bills or pay the mortgage. Most people can't do both, and I'm no different," he says.

So The Barn, as the residence is known around Helm's adopted hometown of Woodstock, became the setting to what he called a "last celebration. We thought we were moving on down the line."

Not quite. Instead, The Barn became the center of an unlikely and unrivaled rock 'n' roll revival.

The Barn is the setting of the Midnight Ramble, now an internationally renowned concert experience. The venue itself is a recording studio built onto Helm's house, and as one might expect, it is a uniquely intimate setting for live music. The weekly Ramble concerts attract not only sell-out crowds but all-star support. Musicians such as Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and Donald Fagen have all sat in with Helm's house band, which includes Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Howard Johnson and Amy Helm (Levon's daughter).

The result not only paid the bills but led to a creative resurgence for Helm, with his collaborations with Campbell and Amy Helm producing back-to-back Grammy-winning albums: 2007's "Dirt Farmer" and 2009's "Electric Dirt."

"[Those albums] represent a lot of satisfaction for us. Everybody worked so hard," says Helm. "Larry didn't sleep the whole project. It was a band effort."

Helm was born in Elaine, Arkansas, and went on to become the back beat and the backbone of The Band. His musical identity took shape at what he calls "the old traveling medicine tent shows" that would come around the South in the fall of every year.

"They had comedians and wine and music. Always a lot of music," he says.

Now Helm has his own medicine show -- and he's taken it on the road as well. In the past two years, the traveling tent show has made appearances at Bonnaroo, Newport Folk Festival, and the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, California. But its soul is always back in Woodstock.

For his 70th birthday in late May, Helm -- in full, if now gravelly, voice -- was back home with a few hundred guests. "Most of these people here I know them by name," he says. "For all of 'em to show up and celebrate -- it's the best way."

Levon Helm Studios opened the Barn's doors to CNN cameras earlier this summer.