Winston-Salem musicians come together to honor ‘the very best’

by Ryan Snyder


“Everything dies, baby that’s a fact/ But maybe everything that dies some day comes back,” Levon Helm sang on the Band’s 1993 quasi- reunion album Jericho. Of course, it’s a tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska classic, but isolated from the song’s actual context, it stood out as lyrical validation for the Band’s return 17 years after making the greatest break from music in rock history. It’s been four months since cancer claimed Helm, but a group of Winston-Salem musicians have done their part to ensure that his memory remains in the conversation with their own tribute.

Enamored with the music of Helm and the Band since seeing their farewell concert The Last Waltz for the first time, songwriters Jonathan Loos and Tyler Nail kicked around the idea of doing a tribute of some sort while he was still alive. They covered a few songs as a part of their live performances, but nothing concrete materialized. Then Nail got word that the end was near for Helm and when he ultimately passed on April 19, the pair immediately decided it was time to act on their idea.

“We cared about Levon Helm about as much as you can care about an artist from a distance,” Nail said. “It goes without saying that his life had much more of an impact than his death did, but his music, there’s just so much to be said about it. He was honest, it was organic, he cared about music and community, and he cared about people having fun.” Community, as it so happened, would become an integral part of this tribute. Likely the first of its kind since Helm’s death, When I Go Away is the collaborative effort of over a dozen artists who share a similar affection for the man who was arguably the heart and soul of roots music’s most influential band. None of the 14 tracks that are covered within were actually written by Helm, but they are notable as vehicles for Helm’s extraordinary voice and spirit. There’s a decidedly Southern undercurrent running through each interpretation — whether rooted in gospel, blues, rock or electronic — but Nail and Loos attribute that to being the most genuine, inescapable aspect of his influence.

“The idea of getting all these artists was to get everyone’s individual flavor, to see how Levon inspired all of these artists and how it manifested itself in the songs,” Loos added. “But we also wanted everyone to be true to it because that’s what Levon’s music is all about.”

The album, named after the song on Helm’s solo release Electric Dirt, covers ever major era of his career and is the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign that has raised more than $2,500 for the project to date. Once the apprehension of potentially missing their goal had passed, Loos and Nail said it was then the real work started.

“It was good to see that people were supportive,” Nail said. “Now we had a mandate to put a good product together.”

The money immediately went to pressing the album, which is supposed to arrive this Friday, promotion, and a Last Waltz-style live performance this Saturday night at Ziggy’s featuring all of the album’s contributors. The night is set to begin with mini sets by the ethereal blues outfit the Two Timers, folk rock duo Lee and Susan Terry, pickers String Soup and the Bayonets’ Caleb Caudle performing with his trio. The main set will feature a rotating cast of the remaining performers — including bluesman Big Ron Hunter, electro-classical composer Nate Lee and jazz-swing guitarist Joe Joes — anchored by Nail on drums and Loos on guitar. The cast, Loos said, all will bring unique, wholehearted interpretations of their songs, just like Helm inspired them to do.

“It didn’t seem like he had a choice to be a musician, it was just something he was compelled to do and that was his whole life till the time he died, Loos added. “It’s got a great sentiment to it; it’s a beautiful way of looking at your work and your life as being completely intertwined.”

When I Go Away will debut live at Ziggy’s this Saturday.