Levon Helm's Rock Led to a Role: Loretta's Coal Miner Daddy in the Movie

updated 05/19/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/19/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Plugging in with Dylan made history; respect from Spacek made his day

"To tell the truth, sometimes I feel luckier than the town dog," says Levon Helm, and well he might. As drummer for the pioneering '60s rock group the Band, he backed Bob Dylan, played Woodstock and sang lead on classics like Rag Mama Rag, Up on Cripple Creek and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Now, three and a half years after the group's epic Last Waltz farewell, Helm has won a whole new following playing the father of country queen Loretta Lynn in her movie bio, Coal Miner's Daughter. Sissy Spacek, the brilliant actress in the title role, flatteringly found Levon "strong enough to be sensitive." Loretta herself decided he didn't need coaching, because "he looked so much like Daddy, I figured he just knew." But don't expect Helm, 39, to don a pair of Foster Grants, leave his modest home in Springdale, Ark. and head for Hollywood. He can't get away from his daily Ozark routine: hammock testing, barbecuing and maintaining his status as "K mart's best-dressed man."

"Yep, it's real hectic," deadpans the easygoing Helm. He is refreshingly unambitious about acting. "You can't just laugh your way through it, but if you can entertain people by singin' or playin' an instrument, you can modulate yourself into the film situation." It was his actor pal Tommy Lee Jones, already cast as Loretta's husband, who suggested Helm for the part. "It was fun," sums up Levon, "nothing strenuous like memorizing the Gettysburg Address. But the thought of making movies doesn't keep me up nights."

Not much does, except maybe work on American Son, his second LP since his well-received RCO ("for 'Our Company' ") All-Stars solo project in 1977. Otherwise Helm lives a good-ol'-boy life with his love of six years, Sandy Dodd. "I don't think I'm a millionaire, but," he concedes, "I'm comfortable." A daughter, Amy, 9, and a stepson, Ezra Titus, 12, from a brief marriage visit summers. Generally about that time of the year Levon and Sandy head up to New York to eat sushi, oversee the music studio he owns near Woodstock and casually check up on the more citified world.

"When you hear Cripple Creek on Muzak," observes Helm, "you know you're getting older." He has also found that some of his rustic boyhood pastimes have changed over the years. "When I was younger," he recalls fondly, "I used to drive up to a bunch of turkeys, roll down the window and say something. They'd all gobble back at once. If you were stoned, it was hi-larious."

Helm's early—and straighter—appreciation of country life set him up just right for his acting debut. The son of a Marvell, Ark. cotton farmer, Helm says that "my dad was like Loretta's dad, raising a family on not quite enough and enjoying it. He didn't whine about his lot. You learned to play the hand you were dealt." Levon also realized early, "The only way to get off that stinking tractor was to get on that guitar." He later switched to drums, and after high school took off to tour Canada with rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Helm and Hawkins' Canadian musicians (the Hawks) split from their leader and spent years playing bars "where you sit down, and the next thing you're slam-assin' around because you got to protect your honor or something. My neck can get as red as anybody's, but when you're 5'9" and 140 pounds, you can't jump on just anybody you see."

One scrawny Yankee who jumped on them, incredibly enough, was Bob Dylan when he made his move from acoustic folk to electric rock in 1965. On the advice of a friend, Dylan asked the Hawks to back him on tour. Three years and a world tour later, the group, redubbed the Band, released Music from Big Pink. It was followed in 1969 by one of the finest rock albums of all time, The Band. Two years after a triumphal 1974 jaunt with Dylan, the group—amid signs of fading popularity in the early Disco Era—put on its star-studded final concert in San Francisco's Winterland on Thanksgiving night. Martin Scorsese's concert film, The Last Waltz, has been hailed as best-of-breed and helped launch a movie career for its co-producer, Robbie Robertson, the Band's brilliant guitarist/ writer. (Robertson co-produced and stars with Gary Busey in Carney, which opens this month.)

Helm remains "friends" with his ex-cronies. "We don't pen-pal or nothing," but he doesn't rule out Banding together again. "I imagine sometime in the future there will be a cause to celebrate," he says, "and we know how." Levon's own ambition is to mature gracefully like his heroes Bill Monroe or Ray Charles. "The music business don't owe me a damn old-age pension or anything." So he pledges, "I'll be trying to play when I'm 65."

The coal miner's widow enjoyed the film so much she forgot to eat her popcorn

Perhaps Levon Helm's best notice came from his most qualified critic—Loretta Lynn's mother, Clara Butcher. "He was perfect," she says, implying that's no small compliment since "my husband was a mighty handsome man." Now 69 and living in Wabash, Indiana with her second husband, Clara is still every pound (80, to be exact) the feisty, strong-willed woman who raised eight children in Appalachian poverty. What the film didn't show was how she endured husband Melvin Webb's death in 1959 from black lung disease, lost a lung herself to cancer in 1978 and had to console Loretta through periods of pills and mental collapse.

"I liked the movie so much I didn't even have time to eat my popcorn," says Clara, who arrived at the Nashville premiere with her "Loretty" in the last car of a 19-limo cortege. She didn't flinch when Loretta's husband, "Mooney," was shown boozing and slapping his wife. "He's a nice boy, just a little rough," says Mama. "There have been lots of times when I've felt like popping him. Now, he treats me like a queen—I think he knows he'd have some explaining to do if he didn't."

Clara has had the opportunity to live like a queen mother—another daughter is, of course, country-pop luminary Crystal Gayle, 29. She won't do it. "I just don't want to impose on my children," says Clara, who moved to Wabash from Butcher Hollow, Kentucky in 1955 when the mine cut back. In 1961 she wed Tommy Butcher, a descendant of the founders of the Hollow and a factory worker until his 1975 retirement. They live in a modest house, and Clara spends her time talking to truckers on her CB (as "Mountain Mama") and calling each of her kids weekly—she has 23 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. Her biggest concern is stopping her two superstar daughters from spoiling her. "I have to be careful about saying I want something or I have it the next day," reports Clara. "I just have too much pride."

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