You had a long history of playing with Levon Helm. How did you come to perform with him for the first time?
Well, I had moved back [to Woodstock, N.Y.] from Atlanta, Ga. I was working at Axis Studios down there and Robbie Dupree had a single out called “Steal Away.” Robbie asked me to come back so I came back from the South. Artie Traum, who has passed us now–well, Happy and Artie Traum were a folk duo. Artie says, “Jim, I can’t make a gig with Levon. He’s playing with Cindy Cashdollar and the guys. Can you cover me? Can you do it?” So I went down to Joyous Lake in Woodstock and played with them. And from then on, I was playing with Levon. It went from there for thirty more years, until the end of Levon’s life when I joined back with the Midnight Ramble Band. If it wasn’t for Levon and his faith in me–I mean he really opened the doors. There were so many other great guitarists that could have done it, I just happened to be there. You know how that all works out; it was kind of meant to be. That was the path that I kind of got led into. I joined The Band and I just stayed with them. We had quite the tromping around the world. They were a rough bunch. [Laughs]
you had a strong connection to that music
. If you weren’t the right fit,
they wouldn’t have wanted to keep playing with you for that long.
Definitely. At the time when I grew up, Woodstock had this big folk thing. You had The Band, Dylan, and Van Morrison, who was just starting out with Moondance and Tupelo Honey. So there was this really strong folk influence. John Hall was playing around with the trio. Hendrix lived up here also during that period, but he was up in West Shokan. Basically, what I was getting at was this folk thing that was very strong here, from Tim Hardin to Happy and Artie. I would be sitting in and playing with these different folk singers, like Gary Cooper and other local players. I learned how to back up a song and really support a song, like a folk song or whatever it was. That’s where I met Ben Keith, who ended up producing for Neil Young. We had a band up here with Billy Mundy and Roly Salley. All these people went on to do other things, but they were big influences on me on how to record and how to back up songwriters. Dylan was in and out of here too, so that whole scene up here in the Catskills–the Band, Dylan–that’s a real Woodstock sound. That’s a sound that was created here. The Band was recording at Big Pink and Bobby Charles was up here. They were all kind of following The Band and Dylan’s vibe of recording, really funky and loose. Those were my influences.
Now onto The Weight Band. What is your mission with this project?
With The Weight Band, we’ve got an album out called World Gone Mad, and what we’re trying to do with it is carry on the legacy of The Band’s music. Of course this is a full Band show that we’re doing. The Weight Band has five singers and two keyboard players. We have Brian Mitchell from The Levon Helm band. Matt Zeiner, who’s our new keyboard player, is from the Dickey Betts Band; [he] brings an amazingly strong voice and fantastic harmonies from low to high, and he’s a great organ keyboard player. Michael Bram, the drummer, plays with Jason Mraz when he’s not playing with us. And Albert Rogers is a great singer and bass player from down in the south. So, we’ve got a really good team. What we’re trying to do is carry on that Band sound–that Woodstock sound. We’re working on a new album; we just cut an acoustic record at Big Pink. We’re kind of chipping away. I’m enjoying myself, The Band is great, and this is going to be a total blast to play these tunes with a full horn section and do the Dylan stuff. I’m really looking forward to it.
I was wondering a little more about the original music. When you started The Weight band, did you expect to end up writing original songs?
It kind of started with me and Jimmy Vivino and Garth Hudson from The Band. We went out and did a couple of shows: We did one at Levon’s, and then we went out and did a couple more. Then Garth wanted to play with his wife, but I saw the reaction of people hearing The Band tunes, so I said, “You know what? Let me do a few. Let me do a couple shows and see how it goes.” I didn’t think I would ever be a straight up cover band of a band I was in for 15 years, and I don’t want to be called a “cover band.” When Garth did it, I said, “Well, if he’s going to do it, I’ll go out and do it.” And we had a ball. But I knew that if I was going to keep playing and doing this show, I wanted to write an original record and that’s what we did. I’m working on the second album now as we speak. I knew that I didn’t want to just do Band songs; I wanted to carry on that sound with original records. I can always still do five or six classic Band tunes in the show and then we do our original stuff. When I wrote the record, the song had to weave in exactly with The Band songs. You didn’t want to hear a hard rock tune and then a Band tune; it had to sound like The Band. That was tough, but I think I accomplished that on World Gone Mad.
Certainly. One thing that strikes me about The Band is that over the course of their career, the person who was looked to as the driving force has changed over time. At least when viewing from outside of the band, Levon, Rick and Robbie all seemed to have leadership roles. I was wondering about your experience with this, which is clearly one of the closest experiences with these people. How did you feel about who you were looking to as the leader?
For me it was always Levon. Robbie was a strong songwriter and an organizer of great songs. He could write to the voices and he had those three strong voices. But I think Levon was always the band leader when I was in The Band. It always boiled down to him. Rick was a very strong part of it, but he would always talk to Levon.