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Luther Dickinson Interview: The Secret Code of Memphis Guitars

Luther Dickinson Interview
The Secret Code of Memphis Guitars
By James Calemine

January 2008

"I'm gonna leave Memphis and spread the news/Memphis women don't wear no shoes."
                 --Furry Lewis

Luther and Cody Dickinson grew up in the Mississippi hill country, where country blues music remains fertile. Their father, Jim Dickinson, played an instrumental role in the North Mississippi Allstars latest record Hernando. The Allstars recorded this hard rocking, blues filtered collection at Jim Dickinson’s Zebra Ranch. Jim Dickinson played with many great artists such as Aretha Franklin, Ry Cooder, Duane Allman, The Dixie Flyers, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan to name a few, but his musical roots and instincts allowed him to produce other artists such as The Replacements, Screaming Jay Hawkins and Big Star. Dickinson and Sons serve as a beacon of light in the environs of Coldwater, Mississppi. Luther and Cody fell into their father’s footsteps while they continually advance towards preserving and continuing some of America’s oldest musical idioms.

Hernando, the name of their hometown, wastes no notes. These songs will transfer well to a live audience. The hard-rocking album also cements the Allstars as a great American trio. In this interview, Luther discusses Hernando, the origins of the Allstars, growing up in hill country, musical influences, his father, his brother Cody, Stanley Booth, his local community, the old days, recording with John Hiatt last fall, upcoming super groups as well as recording with and joining The Black Crowes.

This interview took place the night before Luther was set to go out on the road for about a month and a half to promote Hernando, The Allstars fifth studio release. I’ve invited Luther to contribute periodically, and he’s up for it. So, this interview preserves a clear insight into Luther’s (and Family) accomplishments, intentions and in between some very landmark sessions…as well as a peek into the future….

Our paths first crossed in Memphis in 1990. You and Cody were playing with your Dad at the Memphis Blues Festival as Jim Dickinson and the Hardlycan Playboys…

LD: …I remember that…

Stanley Booth and I made the trip. Stanley and your dad are luminaries on the Memphis music scene, and they go way back…

LD: Yeah, man they’re old friends.

So, tomorrow is the first show of the tour, right?

LD: Yeah, it’s a six week tour. I’m excited.

You’re one of the few guys who grew up in a perfect environment for a serious music education.

LD: Yeah, we were lucky.

The band has evolved since 1996 and three GRAMMY nominations later…would you say times have changed?

LD: We have gone through a lot of changes just growing up. We started touring in 1998—with 10 years on the road we’ve gone through different musical influences of being on the road. Sometimes you tour with bands and you’re exposed to different scenes but we’ve always drawn on strength and power from the home-front. The biggest evolution in the home scene has been—since that period of time—the elders of the hills have all passed away. That was really hard to deal with…especially more so for the family members more than us—we were just friends. The cool thing is down here—I’m not really talking about my band—but the community that we come from and represent it’s so cool because Gary and Dwayne Burnside—David Kimbrough—The Turner Family—everybody is keeping their thing going. What really flips me out is that there’s a whole new batch of young dudes. Just teenagers and cats in their early twenties from our hometown of Hernando who are playing great and hanging out with the families and grew up doing what I grew up doing. Not only that these cats Dwayne and Gary, they’re the new elders and that makes me feel so cool. It’s such a cool thing to see.

How does Hernando fit into the Allstars history or approach?

LD: Well, I’m real proud of it…there’s a couple of things. In the past, the songs you write you try to write them to fit the band—even if it isn’t your forte. On this record we had the time and took my Dad’s advice and demoed up like 22 songs. Then he picked which ones he wanted us to do. He picked all the rockers which is really great because the original plan was to make a classic, straight-up blues rocker. Then I started writing and all these different kinds of tunes cropped up and then they kind of seduce you. It’s funny how songs do that—a song will come and you’ll have to give it respect and you gotta follow it through, but it may not be the right song for the time or for your band, you know what I’m saying? This is the first time that we had enough material in the demo process…we put the record together before we recorded it. Usually it’s in the studio. It’s a real concise record and I really thank dad for keeping me true to my original vision of just doing a straight ahead blues rocker.

So, once again, father Jim played an instrumental role…

LD: Oh yeah. He was keeping me on task. We did it at home which to me—we’ve done our last two records in Memphis and I love Ardent and I love Memphis, but I think in this day and age with the record industry the way it is and the technology…I think it’s important to capture the atmosphere, and some character. In our home studio we’ve been nurturing the scene and the vibe and the sonics for years. I think it’s more important to have some character on your record instead of some cold studio. Listening to the Black Keys kinda turned me onto that because they got some real charmingly lo-fi sounding records. And I thought that was really cool—here’s some cats making their own records and they don’t sound great, but they sound cool. Lot’s of fans would rather listen to a bootleg tape of a concert. So I think the more character you can put into your records in this day and age, the better. That’s part of why I wanted to record at home. I do other things other places, but for us I think our home studio is part of what people like about our early records. What’s also cool is that we’ve focused so much that we have our home studio at our parents place, and I can come home and be in the studio at our parents place and I can come home and be in the studio working but it feels like I’m just hanging out with my family and friends. To have that is great because a studio can be a really stuffy, intimidating place, but to be in a studio with family and friends—you can’t beat that with a stick.

I suppose it was the same old Jim Dickinson strategy of, ‘What take do you like boys? First one or second?'

LD: That’s exactly right. (laughs)Exactly. The way it works is the first complete take…y’know, no false starts.

Any guests on Hernando?

LD: It was just us. Dad played a little piano. I had a couple buddies sing some back ground vocals.

It would be nice to have your dad hit the road because he would be a dynamic addition to the band.

LD: He doesn’t travel too much because of his health and all. Plus he’s got his studio. He’s got his whole career invested in that place. It’s too bad though…

How long did it take to record Hernando?

LD: We did it pretty quick—about three weeks I guess. We cut the basic tracks in five or six days. This was in September and we cut the basic tracks and spent time doing the vocals and tightening up the lyrics, and overdubs here and there. Then we mixed it. So we cut it—did some vocals and overdubs and then we mixed it in three weeks. It went pretty quick.

You knew going it this record would be a flat out rocker?

LD: Oh yeah. I was definitely listening to a lot of early ZZ Top, Black Sabbath, Zeppelin, AC/DC, but there’s so much blues in that stuff and we never claimed to be a blues band…we just rock and roll.

I think you’re exposure at an early age to your father’s music, Furry Lewis, the Dixie Flyers, Fred McDowell and those old blues men, leaks into your interpretation of rock and roll.

LD: Yeah, you’re right man. It was cool for me because I always knew I wanted to be a guitar player. I was never rebellious against my father. I always looked up to him and his friends because they were so fucking cool.

And you could always coax them to give you a little music lesson…

 LD: Oh hell yeah. Just 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. Man, it’s funny you mention Stanley Booth because there’s this one—I can’t remember the name of the story in Rythm(sic) Oil, but he’s talking about the band being onstage and they’re playing the guitars and speaking in the secret language of Memphis guitars, or something like that. I talked to my dad about that and I said ‘What is that? I want to sound like that…what is the secret code of Memphis guitars? He was like, ‘Well, you know it’s a bunch of songs you gotta learn. It’s the language of what we all do.' So, that’s what I went after.

Just the geographical influence of where you grew up proves a fascinating ghost map of old blues legends. You’re even a real close ride to Memphis.

LD: Yeah, 45 minutes to Memphis on some back roads. I grew up hanging out in Memphis a lot—especially as a teenager. In the 90s when I realized there was modern day country blues right down the road it just changed my life. That was when we started going to Junior’s (Kimbrough) and hanging out with R.L. (Burnside), and hanging out with Otha’s (Turner).

What was your first guitar?

LD: I was five when I got my first electric. I had a plastic acoustic. But Cody, he was a natural. He learned “Casey Jones” right off the bat. I was not a natural. I had the desire and the drive to do it, but I learned a lot from Cody because he was so damn talented. I always knew what I wanted to do and I worked my ass off. Cody was just a little biddy kid playing some guitar.

Stanley and I spent the evening at Jimmy Crosthwait’s house, and he was the guy who taught Cody how to play the washboard.

LD: That’s awesome man. Yeah, I guess we’re products of the underground Memphis counter-culture.

You were talking about recording at home—once you get to the point of becoming a touring band did you begin to see the evil underbelly of corporate record companies?

LD: Man, as far as creative control we were always rebellious, but we found our own way. It’s funny we signed our record deal in 1999—and our first record came out right at the end of the old school record industry, because by the time our second record was finished people started talking about ripping and downloading CDs and I didn’t know what they were talking about. I said, ‘You burned it because it was so bad?’ (laughs). That was when everything started changing—the technology. It was pretty cool because our first record sold a lot and it opened up the whole world for us. We did a world tour. I think our best advantage at that point was the fact that we waited so long to put out a real release. We had a fan base in the southeast because we’d been touring but then with that record deal we got bought and sold like a piece of property three or four times and we just got out of it last year. That’s when we started our own record company—Songs of the South. Hernando is our third release and we have a fourth release on the way. I think our rebelliousness is coming out now. We’ve got our fan base, we’re not going after some fantasy to get on MTV or sell a million records. We’re gonna do what we do and we’re going to do it on our own and control it. I think it’s the way of the future. All my friends are doing it. Robert Randolph is the only cat I know that has a record deal.

The Songs of the South label presents some wonderful opportunities to expose some real artists.

LD: As of now, we’re releasing our own product. My brother has his own record label Diamond D and he’s got like 30 some artists…it’s download only—no physical CDs. It’s doing really well, so he’s got that covered. I would, in the future, be interested in doing some of my friends’ records, but I really don’t want to get into that right now. We’re really just getting it off the ground.

You should check out a label here in Atlanta called Dust To Digital. They put out these amazing boxsets like Goodbye Babylon, The Fonotone Records collection and old sacred harp recordings. One of the Goodbye Babylon CDs is just sermons…

LD: Wow. I will have to check that out.

So, you hit the road tomorrow…

LD: Yeah, it’s a rocking record to take out. There’s no acoustic instruments on it. We did an acoustic record right before Hernando…that was all traditionals so we got that out of our system. This one is nasty rock and roll. I’m real proud of “Keep the Devil Down”, “Soldier”, “Eaglebird”, “Shake What Your Mama Gave You”…

You wrote all the lyrics?

LD: I did some collaborating with Jimbo Mathus, but yeah I pretty much wrote all the lyrics. Most of the time it works best when I have some lyrics I’m working on and some music and then all of a sudden it comes together into one thing. Luckily, for whatever reason I never had to sit down with some music and say, ‘Man, I gotta come up with something.’ Sometimes songs fester and I take my time. There’s one old song on Hernando that Mudboy & The Neutrons used to do “I’d Love To Be A Hippy”—that’s a Champion Jack Dupree song. There’s another cover, “Long Way From Home” that my old jazz guitar teacher wrote, it’s a real cool tune. The crazy thing is—he’s kind of a world traveler—a psychedelic warrior—Stanley probably knows him, but since he taught me the song he disappeared and I can’t find him. So that’s why there’s a special thanks to him in the liner notes.

You’ll go out on the road behind Hernando, and then you join The Black Crowes for the Warpaint tour. You recorded their new album with them. You’re now officially a Crowe—congratulations.

LD: Yeah, I’ll jump right into their tour. I’m really excited about it man. What a band.

One of the greatest rock and roll bands in the last 20 years.

LD: Absolutely. I grew up listening to those guys, but over the years I became friends with them. I can’t think of another band that would put such a jolt into my life, and it really feels like the right thing to do for rock and roll. I think there’s a lot of potential in the chemistry.

What was it like recording with The Crowes?

LD: Oh man, it was cool. Once again, it’s really live—they were fresh songs we worked up. It was very organic, just a bunch of dudes in a room looking for the one take. When it came together, it was magic…it was a story like the Rolling Stones recording in Muscle Shoals that my dad would talk about.

I’ve got a 500 page draft of a Crowes book I’ve written, and you joining the band proves a very interesting twist…

LD: It will be very interesting.

Before I forget, talk about getting back with Robert Randolph in December for those Word shows.

LD: It was really cool to watch Robert because by the third and fourth night he really came back to this place that musically was where he was when we first met him. That was really cool. He said it was good for him to do something different again. It was fun because it was really improvisational.

Do you think being a full-time member in the Black Crowes will effect other musical commitments?

LD: Well, you know, I just made a record with John Hiatt as well. He’s touring in April and I wish I could join him. We made a record and toured two summers together. He just made a largely acoustic record that I’m real proud of and I haven’t heard it since we did it. He’s got a home studio now. He engineered it, produced it, wrote it, performed it—he didn’t want anybody extra in the process. He really did a fine job.

Do you know what the Hiatt record will be called?

LD: I don’t know, the working title was He’s with the Band, or something like that. But James, we cut this thing last week that was a motherfucker! I wanted to do a blues super group thing, and I always say we’re not a blues band, we play rock and roll—blah, blah, blah—but I wanted to do a record where we just say fuck it—we’re doing a hard ass blues album. So, it was Charlie Musselwhite, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Jimbo Mathus, my dad and us. We cut like 22 songs in three days and I’m telling you that shit is bad ass. The basic tracks are done. Dad’s gonna finish it. My thing was I didn’t want to sing. I instigated the whole thing, but I just wanted to play guitar and do blues. We all sat in one big circle in the studio and played quiet with a bunch of microphones—we kinda shot for a Chess Records or Sun Records feel…no headphones—just singing out in the room and playing it right there…it was fucking bad.

22 songs in three days…I’m anxious to hear that stuff…

LD: It was tight. You want to know the name of the band?

…Of course…

LD: …The New Moon Jellyroll Freedom Rockers…

Charlie Musselwhite is the real deal.

LD: The real deal for sure.

Alvin Youngblood Hart is going out on the road opening up for y’all, right?

LD: Yeah, exactly. He’s great.

I interviewed David Barbe last week. He records all the Drive By Truckers’ albums—even Bettye Lavette’s in Muscle Shoals with them. Have you heard Brighter Than Creation’s Dark?

LD: Oh man, I love it. I’m so proud of those guys.

The Allstars will do a few shows with the Truckers towards the end of your tour…

LD: Yeah, we’ll join and play with them out in California. Hernando is a real simple album we’re touring on. We didn’t want a lot of guests…so it will be great live. It will be great to cross paths with the Truckers.

What will Cody have going on when you’re with the Crowes?

LD: He’s got a bunch of stuff going on. He, Chris, and the Burnsides are gonna be a Hill Country band, which I think is really cool. He just produced a bad as record on Dwayne—that we all played on and helped out. He’s got one in the can that’s a motherfucker. Cody did a great job. And Cody just produced the two records on the Burnside Exploration, which is Gary’s band, so Cody’s got a lot going on back home. Then also, Chris Chew has come to the forefront as a singer doing soul music—so we’re working on doing Chris’ solo record. He’s stepping out because he’s got a really good soul voice.

The Allstars aren’t coming through Atlanta on this run. I guess I’ll see you in March when the Crowes play the Tabernacle.

LD: Yeah, I don’t think the Allstars hit Atlanta. When I get a break from the Crowes we’ll go down south. This time around we’ll (The Allstars) start in the south and end in the south but we don’t hit it all. That’s our home base. The SEC is it. Yeah, the Crowes hometown show in Atlanta will be a fest. The new Crowes record is so cool. Like I said, it’s so honest and raw—it’s a bunch of guys making some real rock and roll on the spot. So, I did our acoustic record, then I went to New York with the Crowes for that record, then we recorded Hernando right after that. So, late last year I was on a roll.

The Crowes will play Warpaint in its entire sequence. I don’t think they’ve ever done that before.

LD: You’re right. On this promotional tour of clubs—like the Tabernacle—they’ve never done that before. I remember Chris (Robinson) talking about it. He was like, ‘Man, I’m so proud of this we’re going out and playing the fucker in its entirety.’ Those guys are really inspired as far as I can tell. Chris was writing and singing his ass off. And Rich, I mean, he’s a great, great guitar player and we really see eye to eye and that’s partly what’s so appealing…we have potential to be a classic, all-time, dual guitar team. Nobody is trying to outshine the other. We just try to make each other sound better. We became friends before we played together.


Yeah, Chris sang on the Hill Country Revue record.

LD: We met them years ago. Then Chris started sitting in with us, and that was great shit. Then we opened for the Crowes at Madison Square Garden. That’s when I got Rich’s number. We started chatting, became friends and then we did our side project Circle Sound, which was fun and we have a really good chemistry. Then later Rich called me up and said ‘Hey man, you want to record?’ I was like, ‘With the Crowes? Hell yeah…’(laughs). I love our power trio—I love what we do, it’s special. But the Black Crowes got a big band—keyboards, guitars, backup singers, bass and drums…

Now you’ve got a guitar player to play with and someone to cover the singing…

LD: Yeah, man. I can’t wait. I don’t want to do any singing in the Crowes. Hell, I’ve got over a hundred songs I’m learning to play. I’ve got a lot of work to do before I bring anything to the table. Chris and Rich are family and they are a great collaborative team.

How long did it take to record Warpaint?

LD: That took three weeks also. The Hiatt record went really fast too—we did that in something like a week—nine days. That was all just building my confidence—it made me feel like I was really on the right path. Then when we went in to do Hernando we just let it hang out.

Well, I’ll let you have your last evening at home for awhile to you and the wife. I’ll catch up with you in a few weeks…

LD: Okay man. Thanks. Just give me a holler.

Thanks for talking Luther. Godspeed out there…

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