Luther Dickinson Interview
It's A Family Affair
by James Calemine
The Dickinson Family ranks as one of the most influential American music families in decades. Father Jim Dickinson, a purveyor of Memphis music, cast a long and wide shadow in the music world that will always resonate. His sons—Luther and Cody—continue the family tradition of playing and producing seminal music, while Mary Lindsay and crew oversee the indelible Zebra Ranch Studio.
In this recent interview, conducted while Luther was touring the south with The North Mississippi All-Stars, we discuss his father Jim’s legacy, Onward And Upward, The South Memphis String Band and upcoming recording sessions at the Zebra Ranch. The Dickinson Family Series continues…
Luther Dickinson: I’m here in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s a beautiful day in the mountains. We were in Atlanta last night and had a good time…
James Calemine: I know it’s a rough thing to talk about, but your dad had serious heart problems that started up about three months before he passed away. I’m sure life entered into a new era and dimension for the Dickinson family by then…
LD: I came back from London at the end of the Black Crowes Tour and called Dad from the airport. He said he was ready for me to get home and that he had some health issues, but he downplayed it. Then Mom called me in the middle of that night and they had rushed dad to the hospital. We spent the rest of the summer at the hospital with Dad and the hand of God was definitely guiding us through the valley. I wouldn’t admit to myself that he wasn’t going to get better. Maybe that’s just part of the survival instinct when there’s so much to deal with and you have to keep your composure and handle this terrible situation. It was devastating to me. He was my best friend. This is what it all boils down to, Dad was a master of manipulating space and time. He will always be with us through the music.
JC: When he passed away—you’re mom told me a little bit about it—but talk about how Onward and Upward came together the next day.
LD: I was going to do a solo acoustic gospel record. Well, then dad passed. Dad did not want a funeral but he loved recording sessions and I invited our extended musical family to the recording session I had booked. Everyone I invited could make it except Cody. He had to leave and go on the road. He was greatly missed. The session helped us all. It was sad and joyous and Dad was definitely with us. David Less—Dad’s co-producer—he’s such an angel to our family. He was sitting in his chair next to where Dad sat. The beautiful thing was it was an engineering experiment. My favorite audio recordings of all time are the Lomax recordings from the late 50s--the Atlantic Sounds of the South Series. He discovered Fred McDowell and Mississippi fife and drum. He had a stereo two-track tape machine. It wasn’t even stereo—just left and right speakers. We’ve done a lot of mono acoustic recording. It never did it for me. It’s not what I was looking for. So, in an attempt to get that sound we recorded with 2 mics straight to 2 track 1/2" tape. The two-track sounded perfect, timeless, ancient.
JC: “Let It Roll” is great. I used lyrics from it as the intro to your Mom’s interview.
LD: Oh, wow. I wrote that song that day. We were rolling the tape machine into the studio and the whole song just came to me like that. I scribbled it down real quick. It was the first thing I recorded. We recorded the whole album in three or four hours.
JC: After your dad passed away, was it hard to leave Mississippi and go back out on the road?
LD: I’ll always be dealing with the loss and loneliness. It was really hard to leave my family. In the long run it was good to go out and play music every day. When Dad was in the hospital he had three rules: take care of your Mama, do your gig and don’t hover over me in the hospital. 'Take care of your Mama.’ They are soul mates. She’s such an amazing woman, such an angel. She gave him strength to deal with his mortality. He realized his life was so amazing and so blessed and he had so much to be thankful for. With this gratitude he was able to center himself into a spiritual belief that gave him courage. Mom led him there.
JC: Is there anything you’d like to say about your dad’s book, The Search
For Blind Lemon?
LD: His book. Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s his life story up to 1971 up to the release of his album "Dixie Fried." There’s also poetry and essays. During his final moments at home, waiting for the ambulance, he was telling Mom, "The Memphis music chapters are in the Zebra folder under the table in a box…" We found everything he left for us to transcribe and that was an amazing process for us. Like I said, he’s a master of space and time. I’m sitting there on the bus working on his book—trying to figure out his coded hieroglyphics. I can feel his approval when I get it right. We are still working together.
JC: How did the South Memphis String Band sessions come to pass?
LD: We did a tour last spring. We were in Washington D.C. at the XM Radio studios, recording songs for Bill Wax's show. Bill made the mistake of telling us, ‘Do whatever you want. You can keep the tapes.’ Jimbo and I looked at each other, and we didn’t stand up for three hours. We recorded the whole record right there at the radio station. We just kept going…
JC: Any performances with The Word coming up?
LD: Yeah, we’re going to play in Florida at the Wanee Festival. We hope to do more shows, but that’s the only one.
JC: Are the All-stars going to be recording any at The Zebra Ranch any time soon?
LD: We’re going to record this spring and summer. We don’t have it all together yet, we’re still writing for it. I’ve got a lot of stuff I’m preparing for in 2011…
The Six Degrees of Swampland: The Dickinson Family