Luther Dickinson Of The North Mississippi Allstars
By Derek Halsey
The self-described ‘world boogie’ sounds of the North Mississippi Allstars have been flowing out of this trio for ten years now. This electric blues-based group is touring behind their latest release, “Electric Blue Watermelon,” a tribute to the legendary musicians from their part of Mississippi that have died in recent years. The CD was nominated for best contemporary blues album at the 2006 Grammy Awards earlier this year. Known for their energetic live shows, the trio of Luther Dickinson, Cody Dickinson, and Chris Chew successfully blend many music influences with their own brand of earthy rock and roll.
Luther and Cody Dickinson grew up in a musical family. Their father, Jim Dickinson, is a long time musician and producer who worked with everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Replacements to the Rolling Stones. Jim is the producer of “Electric Blue Watermelon,” and it was his idea to bring in the many guest musicians on the new album, which include Robert Randolph, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Lucinda Williams, rapper Al Kapone, the late Otha Turner, and others. Pounding the bottom all along the way is longtime NMA bassist Chris Chew, whom the Dickinson brothers heard one night when he was playing at a high school in 1996. After jamming together the three of them hooked up and haven’t looked back since.
While following their father around the Memphis and Mississippi music scenes as youngsters, Cody and Luther Dickinson were exposed to the great and sometimes unheralded musicians of the area such as bluesmen R. L Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Otha Turner. Turner, one of the last of the rural fife and drum blues masters, died in 2003 at 94 years of age, Kimbrough died in 1998 at 67 years of age, and Burnside was 76 year old when he passed in 2005.
Yet while these artists were still alive the North Mississippi Allstars were fortunate enough to get to know, record with, and learn from each of them. That is why this new album is dedicated to these old time musicians who influenced the band so much. In fact, “Electric Blue Watermelon” ends with a couple of tunes that Luther recorded with Otha Turner before he died, including the song “Bounce Ball” that was captured while hanging out on Otha’s porch one night. As the song ends the tape keeps rolling and captures the sounds of the crickets and Turner talking in the background for over two minutes. It is a moment captured, and a great way to end an album that is fitting tribute to a music master that is now dead and gone.
Gritz magazine spoke with guitarist Luther Dickinson by phone from his home in Mississippi.
Luther, how is it going? Good to talk with you again, brother.
Hey, man, how are you doing?
I have been enjoying the new album. Your father produced it. What is it like to work with your Dad?
We’ve done it before, but this is the most satisfying collaboration we’ve done yet. It really went well. He did a great job. As always, as is his style, he always keeps it fresh and inspired in the studio. He always gets the environment right so the first or second take is the one, so the songs don’t get beat to death. And, he really understood what this record is really about. This record was about me, and us, growing up in Mississippi and being so fortunate to have such amazing experiences with the blues guys around here, Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and Otha Turner. They have all passed now, and this record is kind of a reflection of those times. He knew exactly where I was coming from. But also, on the production side, all the great special guests that we brought in, each one was his idea. Lucinda Williams, Robert Randolph, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, even the gangster rap, it was his production.
What is cool about it is that the guests don’t overshadow the sound that you were going for here. It is a collective effort.
That’s nice. I’m proud to hear you say that. Because, that’s a danger, you know? That’s a careful line you got to walk.
How young were you when you first became aware of R.L. Burnside?
The first time I saw RL Burnside, I was in my late teens. He did an acoustic show with my father. This is before his electric band and before he was touring the states. The first time I got hip to Otha Turner…I’ve been familiar with him since I was a kid because I saw him on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood once a long time ago. When I was 15 our family and his family played a festival in Memphis together and that is when I got to know his daughter Bernice and she took me under her wing. So, I’ve really known that family for quite a long time. Junior Kimbrough, I never really got to know that well. I know his sons, who are musicians, very well. But we used to go down to Junior’s juke joint in the ‘90’s. We would go down there every chance we got. That was a great place because everybody would go there. Burnside would go play there. Everybody would go play. It was an amazing time.
I’ll tell you what, before RL Burnside hooked up with Fat Possum Records he wasn’t on the radar back then at all. He had some lean times, for sure, and didn’t play much.
Yeah, I know. Especially not at home. He would do European tours and go and play acoustic. But the funny thing was that Burnside’s whole early acoustic career, in Europe mainly, he loved doing it, but even at home he always played electric. He was an electric player because it was loud in those juke joints. He had to get some volume. He used to say that the electric guitar has more soul, which is funny, because I think he just liked cranking it up (laughs).
I remember a story about five years ago about a Fat Possum Records guy taking a reporter out to meet R.L. and he had a lot of people living in his house….
Oh, he still does.
…. and that R.L. even had a chain and lock around his refrigerator.
That’s right, man. That’s funny. There is a famous picture of that, to. Yeah, Burnside was hilarious.
The first cut on the album is a Charlie Patton song called “Mississippi Boll Weevil.” What are your thoughts on Patton?
I love Charlie Patton. I mean, you can’t really can’t go much further back than Charlie. That is a song I’ve been in love with for a long time, and it’s been on my mind that I would open up this record with it. I can relate to the statement of that song, ‘Mississippi Boll Weevil ain’t got no natural home.’ I liked it because we are always on the road and it feels like us Mississippi boll weevil’s don’t have a natural home, and I know how it feels to be traveling all the time. I felt a connection to the lyrics. But also, as far as the record goes, I thought it would be cool to open it up with that because it kind of introduces a character who moves through the album.
It is cool to hear Lucinda Williams on the song “Hurry Up Sunrise,” especially considering that it is an Otha Turner song. She has quite the bluesy and sultry voice.
Oh man, she’s such a queen. She is so cool to work with us. We’ve been friends for a while, but this is the first time we asked her to sing with us, and she is just amazing. Once again, that was my father’s production that brought her into the fold. The song is a collaboration between us and Otha Turner, who wrote the lyrics. I had the song and we cut it as a demo a couple of times, but he eventually saw into the lyrics that it was a conversation between a man and a woman, and he was right. When it came to the forefront that it needed to be a duet there was no question as to who he wanted to ask.
The song “Moonshine” has an old school Allman Brothers vibe to it. Was that what you were shooting for?
That was a fun song to do. Actually, we recorded the record and thought we were done but I kept on writing. I went back on the road after we recorded and I just continued to write and I wrote ‘Moonshine’ and I was like ‘Aw damn. I really missed the boat on this one.’ This really sums up the whole record and I wrote it after we’re done. But it turns out, as it normally does for business and record company reasons, we ended up having more time. So, we went in and recorded the song. I wrote it, bare bones, on acoustic guitar. So, it was great to bring the band in and record it and flesh it out. You know, all the slide guitar on there, I never planned it out or worked on it. It all came out naturally.
I think the song has a distinct “Blue Sky” feel to it, especially with that slide guitar solo. It is a song that I can see all kinds of people taking off on.
Aw man, that (Blue Sky) is one of my favorite pieces of music ever. That would be great. I’d love to hear some other people do it. We haven’t ever stretched that one out as a band any further than the record’s arrangement. That is a good idea.
Did you listen to a lot of Allman Brothers music while growing up?
Oh yeah. I’ve listened to the Allman Brothers all my life because my father was friends with them and their records were in his collection. When I was about 18 they came out with that re-mastered ‘Live At The Fillmore’ box set, and my brother and I bought that for ourselves for Christmas. We were doing little psychedelic experimentations at the time and that record really had a huge, profound affect on us. I never really listened to the (Grateful) Dead much, or even modern psychedelic bands much. But, the Allman Brothers and Jimi Hendrix, those two were huge influences on my rock and roll.
Who has influenced your slide guitar playing, Luther?
Well, definitely Duane (Allman), and Ry Cooder was a huge influence. Fred McDowell was a huge influence. Also, I like hanging around and checking out Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks. Alvin Youngblood Hart. You know, just get little pieces here and there. Otha Turner, playing down here in Mississippi, playing with Otha was a huge influence.
Because of the way Otha slid his whistle in his music?
Well no, it was that he would put me in these situations, and he would make me play, and I had to prove myself time and time again. He just taught me how to do it. You know what I mean? Even if you were sitting on his front porch playing he would berate you until you got something going. And once you got a good feeling going he would jump up and throw his hat down and start dancing and singing, trying to make a feeling come out. It’s not a technical lesson, but a very, very important lesson about music and life. It was good times, man. I was very blessed.
That is why the end of the album is so awesome. You end it with a recording of a night you spent with Otha, I’m guessing on his porch. It is very cool, as you kept the recorder running and captured about two minutes of the sounds of the night, with crickets all around and Otha talking in the background.
Yeah, and what he says is really amazing. I didn’t remember it being on the track until we transferred it for the record. But he says, ‘It’s on ya’ll now. Ya’ll do what you want, but it’s on ya’ll.’ When I heard that for the first time it choked me up. I was like, ‘Damn!’
Did you get to see Otha before he died?
Yeah, yeah. I visited him as much as I could. And I saw him a couple of times in the hospital. He was 94. He is an amazing guy. The sad thing, and not about music, but he had so much old fashioned wisdom, like how to sustain yourself on a farm, and he lived at one with the Earth and nature and the animals. I don’t know anyone else personally that has that down-to-earth lifestyle.
Did you ever pick his brain about living back in the old days?? I mean, he was young so long ago.
I know. Yeah, definitely. He remembers before there were any roads, but just wagon trails. He remembered before people had fences up and you could walk through the fields for miles and miles and miles. I’ll tell you what, I just read The Grapes Of Wrath, the John Steinbeck book, and that situation was spurned on by the advent of the tractor that put a lot of farmers out of work. Otha, himself, he hated the tractor. He thought it was the work of the devil. He hated tractors. He hated modern life. He had a very unique perspective on the old times. Especially in Mississippi. He thought the old times were such a better way to live. He is not a fan of cars, grocery stores, anything.
Do you think the younger kinfolk will keep on with Otha’s fife and drum tradition?
Yeah, they’re doing the best they can, man. At this point, I think it is going to take them a little while to get into their own vibe because Sharde, the fife player, is so young. She is 14 now. The grandsons are doing great. They play with us all the time. Otha definitely taught it to them. I’m going to help them as much as I can to keep it going.
Do you know many people from the southern part of Mississippi that got hurricaned up?
Oh yeah. I have so many friends down there. Everything from people who were lucky, to people who lost everything. It is a terrible, terrible thing. I just hate it. It is hard to imagine New Orleans ever being the same. And that kind of brings back the whole ‘Grapes Of Wrath’ thing I was talking about. It just broke my heart to see how fast society’s infrastructure can crumble. How fragile it is. Also, if you got gangs of poor people that, I mean, they left those people down there for two or three days out there starving in the heat. I don’t think it is a race thing, I think it is a class thing. It is the same as the migrants of the Dust Bowl days. I think it is a terrible thing that these people are poor and homeless and it’s not even their own fault. Sometimes it seems like it is hard to get the government to care about them and take care of them.
A lot of New Orleans-based musicians are living in other cities and may not come back at all.
I know it. I know it. It’s really a shame. New Orleans is my favorite city, man. It is a romantic and amazing place. Not even to bring the music into it, just walking down the street. I proposed to my wife down there. That was a great time. And, I’ve had many great nights at Tipitinas. We did a gig there with Dickey Betts. We did another with Chris Robinson. We did a night with Robert Randolph. During Jazzfest the late night shows at Tipitinas get out of hand. I think we have a Tipitinas night saved during Jazzfest (April 28, 2 am show).
And, you have the New Orleans legends, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, playing on the new album.
Yes, on our song ‘Horseshoe’ the Dirty Dozen plays the intro and outro, which is like the funeral wake. The second line. It is a slow hymn at the beginning of the tune, and then they do the celebratory swing at the end of the tune. That was an amazing experience for them to learn my song and play it. I’ve never had anything like that happen to me before. Since we have been playing the song live we have taken the outro and we really stretch that song out a lot. It’s become our non-verbal…not tribute, but prayer for everybody down on the Gulf Coast that has had such a hard time. We’re playing a little Dirty Dozen feel, and then we bust into a little ‘Saints Go Marching In.’ It’s nonverbal, but it turns into a great improvisational piece and a little New Orleans prayer. Otha is on that song as well. The first verse of that song is about Lee Baker, my father’s friend who played guitar in my Dad’s band, Mud Boy and the Neutrons. He was murdered back in 1995, I think. He was one of my major inspirations to play guitar. When he was murdered it broke up my father’s band and it was a huge blow to the community around here. The first verse is about him, and the second verse is about Otha, and the third verse is about Junior. Lee Baker played guitar with Furry Lewis and Fred McDowell. He was a bad, bad boy.
I was thinking earlier that the last time I saw you was up here in Cincinnati, Ohio when you opened for Dickey Betts a few year ago. That was a good time.
We used to have some great shows there opening up for other bands back in the 1999-2000 days. We’ve slowly built ourselves up over the years. I love Cincinnati. And just a local plug, Mike’s Music, down there next to Bogarts, that is one of the best music stores in America. That place is dangerous.
It is funny that you should mention Mike’s. Okay, listen to this; I spent the afternoon at Mike’s Music with Derek Trucks and the band back in January. He was in town for a gig with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. It was great to watch them put some vintage instruments through their paces on an old Ampeg tube amp, including a couple of late 1960’s-early 70’s Fender jazz basses. They didn’t walk away empty handed.
I heard he was just in Mike’s. You were with him? That’s hilarious. My buddy plays bass with the Grace Potter band and he was in there the same day and bought the other bass. I played that bass two years ago.
Do you get to hang out with Derek Trucks much?
Yeah, you know, here and there. He’s such a gentleman and such a nice guy. He came and played with us at Tipitinas one night and we did a whole set. And, another time in Oregon. I love playing with him.
Who else have you jammed with over the years?
Aw man, well, I already mentioned Dickey and Derek. We also did a whole set with Dickey at Tipitinas a couple of years ago. It was a highlight. We rehearsed in the afternoon and did the whole show and it was great. You know, Dickey and Derek are like dreams come true, and Ivan Neville was really fun. I’ve got to do gigs with George Porter Jr., and that was amazing. Chris Robinson takes it to a whole other level. Playing with John Hiatt was a great thrill. We’re real fortunate.
A really cool thing that is going on in that world is Dickey has Duane Betts, his son, playing with him. I don’t know him (Duane), but I’ve seen him play, and I’m a fan of his playing. I just think it’s so cool that Dickey has his son in the band playing those harmonies with him. You just can’t stop the southern rock, man (laughing). I’m glad that the Allman Brothers are doing their thing, but considering the circumstances, for Dickey to have his band with his son just means the world to me. They sound so good. They really keep the beauty of the early Allman Brothers. I think Great Southern keeps that alive.
You guys are known for being a good live band. What are your thoughts on keeping it real in concert, about keeping it organic and letting it roll live?
That’s it, man. That is what I learned from R.L. Burnside and Otha and Junior. Otha would push you to get that feeling and make some goose bumps rise up. Yeah, we’re a rock and roll band, we’re not a blues band. But Burnside, in his day, he would go out and play punk rock clubs, but he would carry that juke joint vibe with him. I think that is part of what we learned from that experience, that no matter where we are we can throw down and see where it takes us and have some fun. We were so blessed to have spent the time that we did with them. Growing up, I loved all the classic blues. But I never thought that I’d be able to experience, first hand, Mississippi country blues myself. I just listened to my Dad’s records and studied films and did the best I could. But then, when that whole world opened up to me, it blew my mind. I started writing this record after Otha passed. We had been on the road for so long, and sometimes you have to be careful not to lose sight of who you are and what you’re really supposed to be doing. When Otha passed on it made me rethink everything and this is like the closing of a chapter.
Luther, we thank you for spending some time with us today. We will see you down the road somewhere.
Thank you so much, man. I was looking at a Gritz the other day in a Tower Records and I was like, ‘Man, I want to get in touch with those people. I want to talk to them.’ So, I am really glad. This is some nice synchronicity.