Are there any lines the North Mississippi Allstars refuse to cross stylistically involving the hill country blues legacy?
Guitarist/vocalist Luther Dickinson laughed so loud at that question, it took a couple of seconds for us both to collect ourselves. Eventually, he responded. “That’s a question for (my brother) Cody ’cause I’m the old-fashioned guy. I deal with the repertoire – and the melodies, and he deals with the stylistic trappings, but I can say this. He says there is a very fine line. Ha, ha. Like many things artistic, he says the only way to do it is to go too far and then fall back, you know what I mean?
“That’s a good question, but I’ll tell you one thing that I won’t do is and I’m probably guilty of it in the past, but I just won’t sing (lyrics) I can’t relate to. I try not to sing about going to jail because I’ve never been to jail, you know what I’m saying? And I’ve become more sensitive to that as time goes on.”
Luther and his brother are free spirits. There’s a certain maverick rebelliousness to the Allstars, a kind of William Faulkner feeling of living close to the edge, tempered with an intellect that transcends the punk mentality of DDT, the band brothers had before founding the Allstars.
Luther and Cody’s dad, Jim Dickinson, in his memoir I’m Just Dead I’m Not Gone, writes, “Otha Turner taught my sons that tradition transcends color lines and generational boundaries. It’s a complicated process of push and pull from both sides of an ever-changing line in the sand.”
“He was a master at balancing his professional life with family life and that was a great example for all of us,” says Luther bout his dad. “The things that he did were way cooler and more heavy and intense than anything we do. We’re a touring blues band, but his career is unsurpassable.”
Jim and his sons were as tight personally as Jim’s music was loose. He had a certain on-the-run mentality fueled by drugs and a poet’s soul. Unlike his sons who define themselves as a working man’s touring band, Jim was happy to stay out of the limelight, but make no mistake about it, he was a force to contend with. He writes about a moment in the early ’70s. “The Stones’ Sticky Fingers came out with my credited performance on “Wild Horses” and (Ry) Cooder’s classic slide on “Sister Morphine.” Also, there I was in Gimme Shelter, the Maysle brothers documentary of the Altamont concert. I was creeping up the ladder of my fifteen minutes of rock stardom.”
But much of Jim’s muse was directed inward. “The first time I saw a hippie I knew we were in trouble. Suddenly, my lifestyle was everywhere; what we had been getting away with was too visible.”
“I’m glad the stories he passed can still be enjoyed like that,” says Luther. Another quote Dad made in his memoir was, “I have taught many a young musician, my sons included, to play every note like it’s your last one because one of them will be.”
“That was one of his things,” explains his son. “That was a big one. It was something he said all the time. It used to intimidate me when he would say that. A statement like that can be intimidating, but it just means do a good job every time you (perform) that’s the way I look at it.”
Jim also worked with Dylan, Clapton, and Primal Scream as well as producing his own solo albums and founding his own Zebra Ranch recording studio. He produced several albums for the Allstars who did a tribute album Keys to the Kingdom after he died in 2009. The recently released I’m Just Dead I’m Not Gone CD features the boys playing live with Dad at a 2006 concert at the New Daisy in Memphis.
“The older we get, the better we work together,” said Luther in 2007. “You gotta protect the album from the artist sometimes.” At that point three of The Allstars’ five albums had been produced by Dad, including the then new Hernando.
Dad understood that great rock was much deeper than raunch and decibels. He worked with the great Ry Cooder and described that artist’s first album: “The music was from Mars: backwards reverse suspension, convoluted mountain melody spun into a soup of folk-oriented space blues sung with a dry, croaking, cartoonish sarcasm.”
Luther gave his dad a lot of credit for focusing the group on an album he was calling “heavy” and “close to the ground.”
“If you look at our history of records, the first record we ever made with the Allstars was called Tate Country. That was in ’98, and he produced that. At that time we were playing all the Shake Hands with Shorty material live, and we made this record with Dad and gave it to him. We wanted to record our live material, and Dad was like, ‘You can’t record that crap. That’s your live set. That’s not making a record.’”
Today, Luther is more sanguine about having a recording of his band’s live work with Dad. “I love I’m Just Dead I’m Not Gone because what that record captures is music our family made together. Those songs we’ve been playing together since we were 12 and 14 years old and that’s right out of his repertoire, and the way Cody and I played, it’s him. That music is gone ’cause we can’t play it without him. That really captures what our family is about, like family blood, our musical blood, I love this record.”
Luther is most proud of Dad’s encouragement. Jim always told the boys, “Do the best you can.” And as for the choice of the book title, “You know, that wasn’t my choice,” says Luther. “The publisher chose that, and once you sign the publishing deal, you have no say. The original title was The Search for Blind Lemon, and that was always the working title, but I understand why they wanted to use that because it’s not a book about Blind Lemon Jefferson. ‘I’m just dead, I’m not gone’ was one of his quotes. He did say that a lot about himself before he passed.”
There are fundamentally two kinds of acts that attain the kind of visibility and success the North Mississippi Allstars have, those who stick to a formula that bred their success and those who surf on their muse and let their gut guide them. Truth and heart overcome commercial considerations and such acts enjoy long success. Dad writes, “After family friend Kenny Brown took Luther as third guitarist on tour with R. L. Burnside, the boys hit the road. The North Mississippi Allstars make no claim to being a blues band. Something happens when white boys play the blues. Rock ‘n’ roll. Whether it’s Elvis. The Beasties or Mudboy.”
I asked Luther if he had any secrets on how his band has become one of America’s legacy acts in a long line that includes The Dead, Dylan and The Band. “I think just keeping it up. Just continuing. We’re so lucky that we have such a nice healthy fan base to work with, and we’re a working-class band. We have such a wonderful audience. It’s not pop music. I represent the underground (mostly) whether it be Memphis rock and roll or hill country blues, genre or subgenres. I am so thankful to be able to support my family playing his music and representing the underground I’m not trying to be (mainstream) in any way.”
The North Mississippi Allstars are able to slip from one style to another without ever abandoning their own identity. “I’ll tell ya, I’ve been listening to a lot of blues,” says Luther, “and you just can’t beat that old Muddy Waters. You just can’t beat “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” God damn! That stuff is just timeless, and you have to go back to the vinyl or the cassette. It sounds awful digital. I think blues and jazz and folk are the worst.”
The group had the mojo 10 years ago. “You gotta stay cool and keep your cool,” Luther said then. “And you gotta play the best you can and concentrate on listening. That’s my key for everything. I just listen to everybody else and let my playing come through subconsciously. If I just concentrate on everybody else, then I don’t have worry about what I do as opposed to just blowing on top of whatever’s going on. Every time you’re in the zone, then it doesn’t matter what the surroundings are or the people playing with you. Just concentrate and listen to the music, and just try and be a part of the moment.
“Col. Hampton taught me a long time ago that whether it’s 10 people or 1000 people, don’t let it affect you ’cause it’s just your ego messing with you. One way or another, don’t get frustrated or don’t get intimidated. Just concentrate on the music.”
Prayer for Peace, The North Mississippi Allstars’ most recent album, was recorded during their 2016 tour on the fly at studios in St. Louis, Kansas City, New Orleans, Brooklyn, Austin, and Dad’s Zebra Ranch in Hernando, MS. I asked Luther how the decision to record like that related to his father’s advice on how to capture that mercury in the bottle?
“That is really a great question because he was all about capturing the live (vibe) in the studio. He would always try to (protect) the first take, the first initial casual – not even a casual – run through in the studio. Capture the beast in his natural habitat.
“By making this record here and there casually while we were on the road, it was very easy. We were in the studio for three hours. We would play four songs, and later we’d sift through it and see what we got. We had a day off in Manhattan, so we’d hire Oteil (Burbridge, Allman Brothers bass player) to come up for the afternoon and jam with him for two or three hours, and then just see where that came from. It’s real easy to overthink and over process, overproduce yourself in the studio, and that’s just not what this band is about. We’re a live band first and improvisational at heart, and we’re interpretive at heart. So, it seemed to work well for us.”
In other words, if you don’t have reality and heart and feeling that’s spontaneous, then it loses a lot of its cache. Luther is quoted in the press material for this album. “Our dad was a big fan of capturing that initial moment of creation and inception. There’s a real strength in building up the material onstage, having it crowd-tested, and then just going in and laying it down. We do it so fast. We go in and record four or five tunes in a couple of hours. In and out. It’s not belabored, it’s raw and fresh and live, we’re dripping sweat and in the moment. That’s why it has that electric psychedelic feel. We just go in there and let it all hang out, clean up the mess later. We don’t even listen to playbacks – we just play, play, play and then split.”
The title cut, “Prayer for Peace,” is a powerful song about being color blind. Luther talks about why he thinks musicians are better able ignore color than the average person “I used to think that it was musicians. Like in Dad’s book, one of his major subplots is the southern races reaching for each other through music, the blues masters and the young Bohemian musicians. Dad said rock and roll changed all of us, and that’s true, but do you know what? I bet you there are athletes’ families that transcend – you know – scientific families, academic families or communities, you know what I mean?
“I think open-minded people in all walks of life with their passions transcend the neighborhood boundaries. Just because we’re musicians we’re music-centric people. I think it’s wrong to say that musicians are more enlightened than others, because I know people from all walks of life who are completely open minded.”
Luther says that bass player Chris Chew’s leaving the band changed the way they look at themselves. “Yeah, definitely. He had his gospel flavor, He brought the gospel harmony. He took chords to country blues. It’s interesting. Once again, it was a collaborative thing. I do one-chord drones, but he put chords underneath, so that lineup had a very unique vocabulary.”
In 2007 Luther addressed Chew’s background as the music director of the Rising Sun Baptist Church in Hernando, Mississippi. “Chris grew up in the Baptist Church. He superimposes all these changes underneath the drone, and that’s what I think makes us really unique. There are lots of hill country-influenced bands these days, (but) I think Chris’s church background and our kind of psychedelic improvisational sense are what give us our own style.”
In 2003 I asked Luther’s brother Cody what made Chew such a powerful contributor to the group sound. Cody said flatly, “God! It’s why their music is so powerful. It’s God! If you do something in the name of the higher being, it just makes sense. He provides them with the talent, and they give it to us, right?”
Perhaps nothing Luther Dickinson has done illustrates his free spirit better than when he abruptly signed on as lead singer of the Black Crows and appeared on three of their albums. To divide his time between two such high profile bands reflects both a sense of independence and self-assurance similar to Warren Haynes’ split duties with Gov.t Mule and the Allman Brothers or Rod Stewart’s time as both a solo act and with The Faces back in the 1970s. “That was a hard balance,” admits Luther. “I had to do it. I had to do it. Well, our team told us we had to figure out a way to get our band off the road. We’d been touring too hard for too long. So, I used that as a way to get the Allstars off the road. But I insisted in the Allstars and kept the (group) together during that time and gave everybody a break.”
The North Mississippi Allstars, unlike their dad are very much above the radar. They use a hauntingly beautiful an Zen treatment of hill country blues as a foundation to paint a broad musical tableau that encompasses American musical legacy.
And they do it with great humility. In 2007 David Fricke in Rolling Stone Magazine named Luther Dickinson one of 20 new guitar Gods. At the time, it threw Luther off his game. “When that article came out, I couldn’t play right for two or three weeks,” he told me. I asked this time if he still had that kind of naivete about who he is or has he gotten blasé? “You know,” he said, “I don’t know. I can’t answer that question. I’m more worried about feeding my family right now.”
When I asked him if winning Grammys for the group’s first two albums in 2000 and 2001 surprised him, he shrugged it off. “You know, we had such a long apprenticeship – we were really late bloomers – that it really felt good.”
Part of that early apprenticeship was a punk band the boys had called DDT. Though it wasn’t Dad’s cup of tea, “he was very encouraging to us. When we started writing original music, that was when he started really helping us, but it’s funny that band, we just ran around in circles for years. It was just an apprenticeship. It wasn’t until Cody and I started traditional music we found our way.”
In 2003, Luther told me, “I remember starting to get into rap, and Dad’s like, ‘Oh, God!’ When I started getting into Black Flag, he’s like, ‘I can’t believe you found something like that.’ But eventually he would always turn around. We were hipping him to the stuff. Like when he went to mix or produce The Replacements, the years of listening to Black Flag through the walls gave him a reference point. That’s what he said at least. So, it’s been a great collaborative relationship, but of course he’s been schooling us from the beginning.”
Today, Luther shares credit for the Allstars’ first two Grammy winning CDs. “Our first record we had a great team. We had a great publicity splash. We sold a lot of records. It was really an exciting time. It always helps and encourages you when you get a Grammy nomination, and it makes you feel legit. I think that’s a healthy boost. Otherwise, it’s such a small little (community). Touring and making records is a lonely, isolated adventure. To get the nod from your press is encouraging.”
Luther sums up who he thinks the North Mississppi Allstars are in a press release. “I think it’s our responsibility to the community that brought us up to protect the repertoire. To keep the repertoire alive and vibrant. That’s what folk music is about. It’s an oral history of America. My dad and his friends, they learned from Furry Lewis and Gus Cannon and Will Shade and then taught those songs to us. It’s important for us to write songs and experiment and do other things, but playing our community’s music in a modern way is what Cody and I do best. I think it’s what we were meant to do.”
Visit The North Mississippi Allstars’ website at: www.nmallstars.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.