Americana Singer Amy Helm Offers Curbside Delivery Of Songs

Jun 25, 2020
Originally published on June 26, 2020 10:11 am
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Amy Helm has provided background vocals for Steely Dan and Rosanne Cash, co-founded an acclaimed alt-country band and released two solo albums. These days, she is offering curbside delivery of songs. Helms, the daughter of Levon Helm of the famed group The Band - and she and her dad used to perform in hospitals and nursing homes. So as Karen Michel reports, Amy Helm is taking that mission to her neighbors in the Hudson Valley.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Amy Helm, her mandolin, two acoustic guitarists and her 12-year-old son Lee (ph) with his drum kit arrived for their first gig of the day a bit after 1:00 p.m. It's on a front lawn in Kingston, N.Y., just a few miles from Woodstock.

AMY HELM: Does this feel comfortable? Is this too close?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Wherever you're comfortable, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible).

MICHEL: A family and their neighbors and their families are sprawled on blankets a generous distance apart. Across the street, other neighbors are in deck chairs, including a little girl in a blue party dress. None of them have heard live music in months.

HELM: I realized that have curbside delivery and curbside pickup was the new normal, then I thought maybe a song could slip in there. And I wanted to get out of my house and bring some music to folks when we could do so in kind of a safe way.

MICHEL: She got the idea just a few weeks ago.

HELM: I was standing on my front lawn. And a lady was driving down the road, and she was delivering just random bouquets of flowers to anybody that happened to be standing out on their lawn. It was such a little spot of light in such a sad time.

One, two, three, four. (Playing music).

MICHEL: Helm calls these curbside songs.

HELM: (Singing) Everything dies. Baby, that's a fact. Maybe everything that dies someday comes back. Put your makeup on. Fix your hair up pretty...

MICHEL: The little girl in the fancy dress danced. Another, Isabella Ashley (ph), was rapt.

ISABELLA ASHLEY: Whenever you, like, play your songs, it might brighten people's days outside their homes.

HELM: Thank you, sweetie.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, Belle (ph).

HELM: Isn't it funny how music can make things feel bright, no matter....

ISABELLA: Yeah, even on the darkest days.

HELM: Even on the darkest days.

MICHEL: Some of the parents were crying.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Thank you so much. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Thank you so much. That was amazing.

HELM: Thank you. Thanks. Thanks for having us.

MICHEL: After that, the group drove to an otherwise empty bank parking lot across the street from the home of the woman who'd requested the visit.

HELM: (Singing) Take down the papers and the trash...

MICHEL: Guitarist Connor Kennedy says doing these gigs is a privilege.

CONNOR KENNEDY: It's interesting as a musician to go to so many different places and play for so many different people and have such a direct connection with them. That's not something you get in a room of a hundred people or several thousand people. It's nice. And it's right on time. And then you get a little window into what they're dealing with.

MICHEL: At each of the stops, the musicians do two, maybe three songs and head on. There's no fee, though tips are welcome. For Amy Helm and her son Lee, doing these gigs is part of his distance learning.

HELM: I will definitely putting this in his quarterly report (laughter). He loves to play, and it's been good for him. This has been very difficult on him. From my conversations with other parents, I think this is particularly hard on kids.

LEE: I was getting so bored in the house with this quarantine. And she was like, you know what? You can just come with me. We'll do it together. So the whole point of this is to really bring, like, joy to the people during this quarantine. And that's why I wanted to come is because I really wanted to help out some people during this virus.

MICHEL: Later in the afternoon, there was a performance on the sidewalk in front of a front porch full of grateful and tearful listeners. And then the musicians drove some miles along winding roads to a place in the country with a huge yard, lots of trees, sweet air and, yes, good vibes.

HELM: (Singing) Gentling me, gentling me. I lost it all, and that set me free.

MICHEL: Just as song has always filled sacred spaces, this, too, felt like a sanctuary.

HELM: We're not constructed to listen to things on a computer and not have that three-dimensional, you know - it becomes a spiritual thing to hear somebody sing, no matter who it is and no matter what they're singing. So I get it. I mean, I sometimes feel like crying when I do it 'cause it just feels so good to connect in that way that's authentic and in real time.

MICHEL: By the end of the day, Amy Helm and her band delivered seven gigs of curbside songs, nourishment to soothe the sickened soul.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel in New York's Hudson Valley.

HELM: (Singing unintelligibly). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.