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Luther Dickinson: A Thousand Footprints in the Sand

By James Calemine

Luther Dickinson (The North Mississippi Allstars & The Black Crowes) is the first born son of the Dickinson family, a dynamic catalyst for American music from the north Mississippi/Memphis area. When Bob Dylan wanted to see the north Mississippi countryside, he called Luther's father--Jim Dickinson--to drive him around the area. Around that time, Jim had recently recorded on Dylan's 1997 stellar Time Out of Mind album. Luther told me he and his brother Cody were peeking out the windows to see Bob Dylan standing in their driveway to meet their father.

The Dickinsons' home and recording studio compound nestled in the hill country of north Mississippi exists as fertile musical territory. The late Mississippi writer Larry Brown penned the liner notes for The North Mississippi Allstars powerful debut release from 2000--Shake Hands With Shorty. Brown's words nailed the magic surrounding the Dickinson family:

Blacktopped country roads with blue skies over them, and a burning summer sun that burns anybody walking down one, and sad black lonely nights out on Highway 4 where the hurtling trucks suck up the trash and papers and flattens them against the grass as they pass. It's hawks sailing over the Tallahatchie River bottom, and other rivers that are broad and brown and slow, and the hot dirt in the gardens where okra and tomatoes grow, and the roar of chain saws in the pine forests, and the unthinkable heat that comes down in May and doesn't leave until September, and it's little roadside juke joints like Junior's, a place where up-close personal idol worship and emulation can occur, and it's those steaming nights with electric guitars wailing and cold tallboys of beer sitting on the edges of the pool tables, and it's the sound that rises up out of a set of strings by a man with his fingers, and it's practice, practice, practice, and lots of nights on the road, and hotels, and fast food, and more practice, until it finally becomes a way of life, until almost every night they settle into their instruments, take the stage, and begin to play.

I first saw the Dickinson sons play with their father in 1990 at the Memphis Blues & Heritage Festival when Luther was 13 and Cody 10. They were billed as Jim Dickinson & The Hardlycan Playboys. They blew me away. Even then, Luther operated at the grassroots level of American music. Straight, no chaser. In 1996, Luther and Cody stepped out from behind their father to form the gritty, blues-based North Mississippi Allstars, and they pounded the road for many years. Eventually Luther also served as a member of The Word and Circle Sound. The Circle Sound group--featuring Black Crowe Rich Robinson--led to Luther joining The Black Crowes in 2007. He recorded Warpaint and Before The Frost...Until The Freeze with the Crowes, and toured with the group until their hiatus in 2011.

Luther Dickinson's fluid guitar style remains identifiable on anything he plays on--including noted collaborations with Mojo Nixon, John Hiatt, Beck, Gregg Allman, Patty Griffin, Robert Plant, Lucero, Mavis Staples, Ry Cooder, and George Porter. He never ventures far from his north Mississippi blues heritage having played with the late Otha Turner and members from the extended Burnside and Kimbrough families. Luther's authenticity, versatility and pure talent render him a highly sought-after musician.

Before moving his family deeper in country to the north Mississippi hills decades ago, Arkansan Jim Dickinson based his early musical career in Memphis playing on records by the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Ronnie Milsap, and Furry Lewis. In 1975, Jim produced one of the most influential cult records ever, Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers. This album didn't have its officially-approved Dickinson release until 1992, but the bootlegs had already deeply affected the post-Stax Memphis scene and other groundbreaking musicians like the Replacements and REM. Luther Dickinson recorded his first guitar solo at the age of 13 on The Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me, an album his father produced which many consider that band's finest hour. Luther's presence on the album remains an amazing passing of a generational torch.

As Luther's music career continued to grow in parallel with ongoing demand for Jim's production skills, the father never stopped giving the son a first-rate musical education, producing and playing on many of the North Mississippi Allstars' albums and immersing Luther and Cody in the music of their region. When Jim died in 2009, Luther renewed his musical vision, seeking other musicians in his local community to play music with him. Luther recently said this about his musical background: "When my father passed away, I started to realize what made me unique—it's the culture. I'm a product of the Memphis musical underground in the '50s, '60s and '70s. I decided I had to follow that muse down to the heart of it."

Jim Dickinson spearheaded the Memphis Underground by working with artists such as the aforementioned Big Star, The Dixie Flyers, Mudboy & The Neutrons, Alex Chilton and Phineas Newborn. Other artists such as photographer William Eggleston and writer Stanley Booth also operated within the Memphis Underground by contributing photos and liner notes to related albums as well as spending time with the aforementioned musicians.

When I interviewed Jim Dickinson, he revealed this about the music scene he brought his boys up in: "Yeah, in this area—Memphis in particular—you have to invent your own work. You can’t just sit back and expect to do it like a job because there’s no job there. You gotta invent your work and then you gotta keep motherfuckers from stealing it. My boys have seen that their whole lives."

Luther began his new musical journey in the immediate days following his father's passing in August 2009 by recording the Grammy-nominated Onward And Upward with regionally-based musical compatriots from both his father's era and Luther's. Onward and Upward was the first album released under Luther's name. 

In the here and now with the North Mississippi Allstars and the Black Crowes both on hold, Luther Dickinson remains busy--and original--as ever. On May 8 of this year, Dickinson released 3 new albums. The first, an acoustic instrumental titled Hambone's Meditations released under his own name, mainly features Dickinson's acoustic guitar work. Hambone's Meditations was recorded during a meaningful time in Dickinson's life, and serves as unarguable testimony to his brilliant instrumentalism.

Luther revealed this about Hambone's Meditations: “I grew up on John Fahey. Hambone’s Meditations is in his Takoma tradition, but it was Jack Rose who made me realize that the medium of instrumental guitar was there for me to utilize. It had never occurred to me to try it myself and it was a satisfying relief when I did. I write musical ideas all the time and writing this record felt as natural as breathing. This record was very timely in my life as well. My daughter was just an infant as I wrote this material and I was still meditating on my father’s passing. The music fit the mood of the Mississippi winter of 2009.”

Tunes such as "Breckenridge Blues", "Arkabutla" and "Tallahatchee (Birds of the Moon)" showcase Dickinson's undeniable six-string talent. Traces of Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, Fred McDowell and Fahey resonate through these autumnal tunes. It's great to hear him just play the instrument.

The second Dickinson release features his band The Wandering. The album, Go On Now, You Can't Stay Here comprises a talented group of female musicians including Shannon McNally, Amy LaVere, Valerie June and Sharde Thomas (Otha Turner's granddaughter). Dickinson mentioned this about origins of The Wandering: “The idea for the band came together one day when I saw a picture of Valerie playing the banjo, which led me to think about Amy playing upright bass, which led me to think about Sharde playing drums and Shannon playing guitar. So I called them up and arranged a session. We had no idea what to expect and I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it couldn’t have been lovelier.”

The Wandering recorded at the Dickinson's Zebra Ranch studio. This album of traditional standards sounds good on a Sunday morning. All of this music sounds very close to the soil. Shannon McNally and Amy LaVere sing alternating verses on the stellar rendition of "Mr. Spaceman" that would make Gram Parsons proud. An amazing version of Robert Johnson's "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day" showcases the earthy voice of Valerie June. It's memorable to hear these talented women cover the traditional number "In The Pines".

A native of Humboldt, Tennessee, located about ninety miles northeast of Memphis, Valerie June plays what she calls “organic moonshine roots music.” A self-taught performer, she gained broader attention in 2009 when she was featured on the Craig Brewer-directed MTV webisode series $5 Cover, a fictionalized take on the Memphis music scene that also included Amy LaVere.

Dickinson's third project counts as another release by the South Memphis String Band that includes Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart called Old Times There. Real Appalachian tones echo through this collection. The compositions on Old Times There revolve around the old south where legacies of the Civil War, slavery, reconstruction and Jim Crow-sanctioned segregation arise. Numbers such as "Good Old Rebel", "Turnip Greens" and "Stonewall, 1863" sound as if they are recordings from the Library of Congress.

A fourth Dickinson-related release--I'm Just Dead, I'm Not Gone--captures Jim Dickinson's June 2, 2006, Memphis performance where he was backed by the North Mississippi Allstars. I'm Not Dead, I'm Just Gone contains raw power. This stands as one of my favorites recordings in Jim Dickinson's formidable discography. Tunes such as "Money Talks", "Codine" and "Make Your Move To Soon" epitomizes Dickinson's unrestrained soul. Dickinson sounded happy to have his boys backing him up, and you can hear the DNA embedded in these songs. Real authenticity resides in every Dickinson recording. The release date for I'm Just Dead, I'm Not Gone is July 3, 2012.

When Jim Dickinson passed away, he passed on a legacy to his sons. Now, Luther and Cody Dickinson run their father's Zebra Ranch studio located in their Coldwater, Mississippi family compound. Luther's ability to orchestrate various projects provides a clear view to his original musical instinct. Songs from Luther Dickinson's new releases sound like old tunes from Dust-To-Digital's Goodbye, Babylon box set that I'd given Luther before he joined the Crowes due to our shared appreciation for powerful old recordings.

In my interview with him, Jim spoke of music and its future: "The whole industry has changed. Certainly what I have done for 40 years is going away. It never crossed my mind they were going to give the damn stuff away—it seems unreasonable to me, but I guess that’s what’s going to happen. The studio, through a whole process of making a record, is so important, that I hate to see it vanish, but it really is…"

Jim Dickinson would be proud to know that his eldest son keeps his traditions alive. Even back in 2008 when I interviewed Luther, he explained: "I was never rebellious against my father. I always looked up to him and his friends because they were so fucking cool. Dad’s record collection was a wealth of knowledge—it was my responsibility being in the position I was in--to learn as much of that traditional roots music as I could. It really paid off." Indeed.

Luther Dickinson stands as one of this generation's seminal musicians. His musical soul never strays far from north Mississippi's hill country...


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