Luther Dickinson and the North Mississippi Allstars are going back to their roots with an album dedicated to churning, elemental blues. Interview by Rik Flynn
The blues can so often lose its way. Gone are the days when it was a simple transmitter, a vehicle for folk in the Deep South to pass on their stories. So much time has passed since those turbulent days that it’s easy to forget what it actually represents. So many modern-day interpretations are a hollow echo at best. The true soul of the genre lies not in the postured solos that sidetrack so many current offerings but in an intangible atmosphere, a multi-generational link, the continuation of the chain that passes on that unquantifiable feeling from elder to younger.
Perhaps, then, the duty of modern bluesmen is to renew the spirit and serve the zeitgeist of their own particular generation while harbouring within them the all-important ghosts of blues past. Forget humbuckers and foot-down widdling; forget over-produced ego-peddling; forget nicknames that feign a kinship with the greats.
We’re talking about the ‘real’ thing – the blues that exists as the natural musical language of the people. Of course, we’re not suggesting that a skilled guitarist with a goldtop, a distortion pedal and a healthy dose of attitude can’t get our juices flowing, but it isn’t necessarily the blues. It follows the form, but all too often it can be something else entirely.
So how exactly does Luther Dickinson fit into all this? Luther’s past, and in particular time spent with his late father and ’60s session star Jim Dickinson, has obviously played a major part in his musical evolution. Now with a fair few albums under their belts, his band North Mississippi Allstars have refined their craft. New delivery World Boogie Is Coming, made with his brother Cody by his side and a band of fellow Mississippians, is without doubt their ‘career-defining moment’ and, what’s more, it’s the blues as it should be – natural, resonant and alive.
‘Our father Jim grew up in the ’50s – a first generation Memphis rock’n’roller,’ Luther relates. ‘He had an insane career and went on to make records with Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Albert King, Albert Collins… so we grew up surrounded by American roots music of all genres.
‘He and his friends were wild bohemians. They were playing folk music and surrounded by bluesmen like Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes, Robert Wilkins, Mississippi Fred McDowell – it was like a blues rediscovery. The bohemians and the blues masters would play the Memphis Country Blues Festival every year, and those two cultures and generations collaborating was the beginning of his generation’s “world boogie”. Then it happened again with us in the 1990s with RL Burnside, Junior Kimborough and Otha Turner.
I really got turned onto classic blues from about 13 to 14 onwards… before that it was Black Flag, Van Halen, AC/DC and Jimi Hendrix!’
Aside from a brief foray into speed guitar, Luther embraced the blues tradition. ‘I used to shred a little bit, but at a certain point I had an epiphany because I was surrounded by the Mississippi hill country blues. As soon as I got out of high school, I just dived into that. Since I was exposed to all the Memphis and regional blues styles, I felt it was my responsibility to study up on them. I was so fascinated by it that one night I was listening to Fred McDowell and thought “We’re going to start a band, call it the North Mississippi Allstars, and we’re going to play the traditional repertoire!”’
Dickinson and his brother soaked up everything their surroundings had to offer. Inspired by local legends like RL Burnside and Otha Turner, they played and partied at Junior Kimborough’s juke joint. Their debut Shake Hands With Shorty introduced their electric hill country blues to the world and earned them a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Album in the process, an award they would go on to win twice.
It’s a past that resonates still, and their generation-spanning ethos was perhaps most prevalent in their performance at the Bonneroo Festival in 2004. ‘We played with Otha’s family, RL Burnside and his family, and our father. That was the pinnacle of the concept – playing with the elders. It blew my mind, it blew my dad’s mind! He didn’t think my generation would have that kind of interaction with real bluesmen. Now all those guys are gone – my father’s gone, Junior, Otha, RL…’
World Boogie is all about passing the torch and stamping out the exclusivity. The guestlist on the record reflects this, with a cast that includes Lightnin’ Malcolm, Duwayne and Garry Burnside, Kenny Brown, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Sharde Thomas, Chris Chew, Sid and Steve Selvidge… and even the harmonica prowess of one Robert Plant.
‘I wanted it to be a collective group of regional musicians who all played different versions of the same repertoire,’ Luther explains. ‘Hill country blues, even with the elders, was multi-generational and evolutionary. The cool thing is, it’s what happens naturally. We’re not trying to keep it museum-piece – that’s what’s unnatural! World Boogie is like an art project. We wanted this record to be like a cultural statement about Mississippi, more than just an album.’
And what of Robert Plant? ‘Robert came to Memphis and said, “I wanna play harmonica in A.” Man knows what he wants! We had an original and a Junior cover, and we cut it first take. He only had time for one song, so we snuck a medley in… two for one, you know!’
The concept for World Boogie had some input from a certain dungaree’d bluesman named Seasick Steve. Seasick saw Luther as a whole lot more than another pretender standing in line to deliver a diluted reflection of the blues; here was a young man who’d seen the chain of command first hand and who, with the modernist approach of his brother Cody, could weave the original threads to suit younger ears.
‘I met Seasick at a festival – he’d seen a documentary of me down at Otha Turner’s farm where I was playing old Fred McDowell tunes out on the porch and there were a bunch of folks dancing. It was like an old barnyard juke joint. We became really fast friends, but it was that first day that he grabbed me and said, “You are the link! You are the only person who has ever been down there on that cornfield. You can show the future generations what it was all about.”
‘The most important thing Steve told me was to keep it primitive. My brother’s totally opposite, he’s real modern, so we go for a kind of primitive modernism. If I had my way everything would be old-fashioned, but that’s self-indulgent. Seasick’s right, we have to make it current enough to interest people right now.’
It can take some a lifetime to truly ‘find’ their musical voice, but sometimes an extended trip round the houses brings you right back where you started, with fresh ears. ‘It’s so true. My father used to tell me that roots music is mature music, and it’s a great thing to be able to grow into it.
It’s interesting because now punk, rock and rap is 20, 30, 40 years old – to me it’s all folk music in its own way. In the past the songwriting has led me astray time after time, but this record was like a zeitgeist record where it all came together. After the first record we lost our way, we were touring the world and we became uprooted, so in a way this is like our second album – all the records in between are just snapshots.’
With Seasick’s encouragement, NMA are right where the world needs them: a finely-tuned springboard for taking the blues forward. However, the original inspiration was a humble diddleybow.
‘It’s what started the whole project. We were doing a record store show and a friend of mine, Scott Baxendale, who makes guitars, handed me this instrument. I tuned it up and started playing Rollin’ And Tumblin’ – that’s the diddleybow song on the album. We’ve did it at every show since and it became a highpoint of the set. Cody said, “That’s it! That’s what we need to do!” It’s the perfect primitive-modern song – a coffee-can diddleybow through octave and distortion pedals.
There’s an inter-generational feel to the song choice too. ‘Goin’ To Brownsville was a tribute to Furry Lewis and the Memphis side,’ explains Luther. ‘My father and his friend learned it from Furry and we learned it from them. Our parents were Memphians, so that’s a nod to that tradition.’
The album features a clutch of originals (look out for Turn Up Satan) and covers including Otha Turner, Bukka White, Willie Dixon, Kimborough and RL Burnside, whose Snake Drive is a electrifying moment with octave-infused guitars, effects-drenched washboard, some fun with a pickup switch and a whole lot of space to manoeuvre.
‘I’m glad the space was maintained because Snake Drive has over 100 tracks on it! It’s totally indulgent, but a lot of the rest of the album is very stripped down. Cody had his way with his part of everything – a real modern technique – but my thing was really live. Our father taught us to combine the new and the old – it is a digital world, after all.’
NMA’s blend of Cody’s future-minded approach juxtaposed with Luther’s old-school energy led to an inspired noise – forget the dead, sterile studio environment so common amongst today’s musicians.
‘It was just a real open recording. We had a window open with a mic outside. If it was raining we would mic the rain; if there was a windstorm we’d turn on the wind mic. We also just let people talk. We were also trying to be cinematic, because Cody was making films to go along with it. We wanted to have segues, so we would just improvise for a few moments before and after almost every song.
This is the first time that we just invited everybody in and said, “Come on, just do your thing.” In the past every record’s been: lock the door, here’s a new song, it goes like this – and that’s where we’ve been going wrong.’
Together with his brother Luther is taking the field holler into the future with a new narrative that’s impossible to resist. But it isn’t just the original blues artists that matter to the equation, as an elite group of modern pioneers also played a part.
‘Seasick introduced me to Jack White, who I admire greatly. He’s a master when it comes to stylistic precision. Whatever project he’s in, he keeps it within those parameters. There’s total freedom in limitations, and he’s been a great example for me.
‘Also, we’re fortunate enough to live in the era of Derek Trucks. He’s one of those very special musicians. I love how he has extended the vernacular of slide guitar so wide. When I first saw him aged 14 he was playing Coltrane, then he studied Indian music and then sacred steel, like Robert Randolph. Now when young players listen to Derek, they hear that phrasing and intonation.’
The album is played predominantly on a new Gibson ES-330 reissue – again chosen to maintain their manifesto.
‘The whole thing about North Mississippi is that even RL Burnside had his electric rock’n’roll band, but I love the acoustic stuff – very intricate and powerful fingerpicking. I wanted to play acoustic country blues really loud. What I’m trying to do is to get an electric guitar to respond like an acoustic. I grew up with an Epiphone Casino and my father’s 1951 ES-175. Though jazz hollowbodies are perfect, they feed back at higher volumes. Then my friends at Gibson let me borrow the new 330, and I just fell in love – that’s the guitar on World Boogie. It’s fully hollow and it’s got the P90s, it just sounds so good.’
Instruments, feel, musicians… Luther Dickinson is all about representing Mississippi and hill country blues right now. ‘It’s an ancient thing, man. Music is such a beautiful communicator. It’s like science and art, nature and spirituality. So much rock’n’roll and traditional blues is existential – you just sit there, watch it and appreciate it, but Junior, RL and Otha were like chiefs of their tribes.
Wherever they played, they had that vibe. It was about the whole mood, and that’s what we try and do: break down those boundaries and take everybody to that place. There’s so much bad music that’s called “the blues” these days. I’m done with that. I don’t know what all that other noise is, but this is modern-made blues right here… and this is what’s happening in Mississippi right now.’