CD: 21 Songs, 60:14 Minutes
Styles: Traditional Acoustic Blues and Folk
Once in a blue moon – or, in the case of 2016’s Summer Solstice, a strawberry moon – a traditional acoustic blues album comes along that turns fans’ hearts toward the genre’s early days so powerfully that they’d forsake all current “music” for such times to return. To make a long sentence short: this is it. Mississippi’s Luther Dickinson, of the North Mississippi All-Stars, pours his all into Blues & Ballads: A Folksinger’s Songbook, Volumes I and II. Technically, this is a blues and folk album. Purists might not like it, because they want to be reminded of Jim Jackson instead of Jackson Browne. Nevertheless, if listeners close their eyes, they might believe Luther’s twenty-one original tracks were recorded in the early 20th century, not the early 21st.
In the Editorial Reviews section of the album’s site on Amazon.com, Dickinson is quoted: “Blues and Ballads, this acoustic collection of songs interpreted simply, recorded live, solo or with a small group of friends, celebrates my relationship between music, songs, the written word and legacy…I represent the Memphis underground and the mid-south region’s music. This art is not for the masses. It is meant to wither and fade and then rise from the ashes again and again, evolving and mutating.”
With Luther on guitar, vocals, mandolin, piano, and coffee can diddley-bo are Sharde Thomas on drums, fife and vocals; Amy LaVere on upright bass and vocals; Lillie Mae Rische on fiddle and vocals; Charles Hodges on B3 organ and piano; Paul Taylor on tub bass; Jimmy Crosthwait on washboard, cardboard box and maracas; Sharisse and Shontel Norman on vocals; Will Sexton on drums and acoustic guitar; special guest star Mavis Staples on vocals; JJ Grey on vocals; Jason Isbell on slide guitar; Dominic Davis on upright bass; Boo Mitchell on “love and happiness conga”; Alvin Youngblood Hart on guitar and vocals; and Jimbo Mathus on banjo and vocals.
It’s truly impossible to pick the three best songs on this CD, but yours truly shall attempt it.
Track 03: “Bang Bang Lulu” – This serpentine, tongue-in-cheek shuffle features piano, fiddle, and guitar hotter than Hades. Its chorus isn’t tepid, either: “Bang, bang, Lulu – don’t bang away so strong. What you gonna do for bangin’ when Lulu’s dead and gone?” If it doesn’t get people up and dancing, nothing will. Track three is the kind of voodoo-magic tune that makes people wonder if some artists do sell their souls to play the blues.
Track 08: “Ain’t No Grave” – Mavis Staples displays commanding vocal prowess on a dynamite duet with Dickinson. The theme of their waltzing ballad is familiar yet comforting: Death does not have the final say when it comes to our loved ones. “I would hope to be as brave as he was on judgment day. Ain’t no grave hold his body down. Ain’t no grave hold his body down.” This song is haunted. So shall anyone be who hears and ponders it.
Track 15: “Mojo, Mojo” – Speaking of voodoo, where does a blues artist’s inspiration go when it vanishes? Our narrator desperately wants to know: “Mojo, mojo, where you been? ‘Been to hell and back, and back again.’ Mojo, mojo, where’d you go? ‘Believe me, son, you don’t want to know.’” The best thing about this song is the eerie guitar, whom some might imagine is being strummed by a skeletal hand.
There’s an old saying that “true art never sells,” but Blues & Ballads should go platinum!