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Six Degrees of Swampland: The Dickinson Family

Jim Dickinson--The High Priest of Memphis Mojo--shines like a beacon of light in the music world. Dickinson’s indelible contribution and influence on music will endure because he served as a vital link between the famous artist and the subterranean artist. Dickinson proved King of the Underdog, and the heavies loved him because of his pure musical insight. When Bob Dylan visited Mississippi a few years ago, he asked Jim Dickinson to drive him around the remotest environs.


Born in Arkansas during 1941, Dickinson’s family moved to Chicago, but re-located to Memphis a short while later. In time, Dickinson ran a summer theatre called The Market Theatre in Memphis. He began organizing folk and blues festivals with local musicians as well as honing his own skills. Dickinson later recorded his first record at Sun Studios with Sam Phillips--the man who discovered Elvis Presley. Dickinson became entrenched in the Memphis music community and kept time with local luminaries as Furry Lewis, Mississippi John Hurt and Stanley Booth.

In 1969, Dickinson played piano on The Rolling Stones' song "Wild Horses" in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where a convergence of blues and southern soul coalesced. This Stones session landed him in rare musical company and consequently jumpstarted his career. His relationship with Jerry Wexler led Dickinson to relocate his band--The Dixie Flyers--to Miami where they recorded with Aretha Franklin, Duane Allman, Eddie Hinton, Rita Coolidge, Jerry Jeff Walker, Albert Collins, Carmen McRae, Sam The Sham and Ronnie Hawkins. His 1972 solo record done with the Dixie Flyers, James Luther Dickinson, now endures as a cult classic. Dickinson operated as an intregal figure in Southern music during the late 60s to mid 70s when the soul and rock sounds of that time and place later merged to take over the world under the banner of ‘Southern Rock’.

During that same period in 1974, Dickinson moved into the producer's chair to record Big Star’s Third album, an album whose influence is still being felt today. Third became a seminal album for many bands especially the Southern college indie scene that rose in the 80s. REM rode that small initial wave to worldwide success without ever forgetting the importance of Dickinson's first important production. REM's Peter Buck said, "[REM has] sort of flirted with greatness, but we've yet to make a record as good as Revolver or Highway 61 Revisited or Exile on Main Street or Big Star's Third." However, it took almost a decade for the influence of Dickinson's production genius to take hold so he spent that time scoring soundtracks (The Border, Paris, Texas and Southern Comfort) with friend and collaborator Ry Cooder.

Just as the Southern-bred, Big Star-influenced REM began its ascendancy from Athens, Georgia towards the mainstream music throne during the 80s, Dickinson stepped back into production.  He started with two great young bands, Nashville's Jason and the Scorchers followed by Austin's True Believers, both of whom shared the same punk-fueled roots rock found on Dickinson's solo album from a decade earlier.  

A breakthrough for both producer and band came a few years later when the Replacements, a young and freshly signed groups of evolving punk rockers, sought out Dickinson to produce their second major label album which they specifically recorded in Memphis at the same studio as Third showing again the deepening influence of that record. The Replacements Pleased To Meet Me, on which Dickinson's son Luther recorded his first guitar solo, helped form the foundation of post-punk rock which not only informs the music worldwide stars like Green Day but also serves as the blueprint for a new kind of Southern Rock that can be heard today in the music of the Drive-By Truckers, Lucero, and Centro-matic.

In producing both Third and Pleased To Meet Me, Dickinson’s contribution to music, especially Southern music, cannot be overstated as he bridged the valley during the last three or four decades between super stars and unknown legends. If you wanted to record in Memphis…you called Jim Dickinson. Dickinson's Mississippi Zebra Ranch Studios became the nucleus of musical soul for musicians in surrounding areas. Throughout the 80s, the band Dickinson formed on the heels of his first solo album, Mudboy & The Neutrons, served as vital players in his music. The group--Dickinson, Lee Baker, Sid Selvidge and Jimmy Croswait--never strayed far from hard-core blues, and between these four musicians they performed with legends such as Bukka White, Gus Cannon, Mississippi Fred McDowell, the Mar-Keys, Duane Allman and The Stones. Mudboy's Jimmy Croswait taught Cody Dickinson how to play the washboard. They kept it all in the family...

Dickinson played on Bob Dylan’s classic 1997 disc Time Out of Mind. In his Swampland interview, Dickinson spoke of that landmark session through a producer’s eyes: “I never in my life heard two pedal steels before. If you took your earphones off, which I eventually did completely you could hear chord tensions in the air that didn’t make it to tape. Especially the two pedal steels—(Daniel) Lanois turned it into a kind of string patch. A few months later…I can’t really talk bad about the session because it was so great. Let me just say this about the session—months later, I was doing some dates with Levon Helm and somebody was trying to explain to Levon who I was…I was standing there being humiliated anyway…why should it matter to Levon who I am? Then somebody said I played on Time Out Of Mind and Levon kind of perked up and he said, ‘Well, they didn’t waste no time mixing that one’. That’s the way I feel. He didn’t waste any time mixing it." Even in his book, Chronicles Volume One, Bob Dylan wrote at one point: "Lately I've been thinking about Jim Dickinson and how good it would have been to have him here..."

Dickinson's widening influence in the new millennium came through his sons --Luther and Cody-- who have followed their father's path by becoming quite influential among musicians of their generation. These cross-pollinations of influence, family and music led the Dickinsons to shed light and collaborate with the Kimbrough Family, the Burnside Family and the Turner family as well as shining light on contemporary musicians such as Amy LaVere, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Jimbo Mathus and Paul Taylor. Luther and Cody's band, The North Mississippi Allstars, prove a formidable group that remains true to Jim Dickinson's blues-based inclinations. Cody produced various bands--like Lucero--while Luther adopted sidebands like The South Memphis String Band as well as becoming a full-time member of The Black Crowes two years ago.

Jim Dickinson died on August 15, 2009. During every generation of musicians for the last 40 years, Jim Dickinson remained true to the purest forms of American music—no matter the year he was living in. He promoted and enhanced the best elements of southern culture. I am proud to say he contributed to Swampland/Mystery And Manners by the written word. Besides his influences, accomplishments and offspring, Jim Dickinson's resonating achievement remains in his ability to give a credible and timeless voice to underground musicians or even the stars…

James Calemine

World Boogie Is Coming - Jim Dickinson

Visit The Zebra Ranch online 

Memphis Culture on Facebook

Dickinson Family Swampland Interviews

Jim Dickinson Interview (This definitive interview with Jim Dickinson--one of his last in-depth Q & As--was conducted in Spring of 2008. His insight operated at an apex at this point. He began to see some of his musical influence out there by time of this conversation, and his productivity proved strong as ever. His good-humored spirit, soul and perspective revealed why he will always be one of America's most influential musicians. In this interview Jim discusses first-hand experiences with Bob Dylan, The Stones, Eddie Hinton, Albert King, James Carr, Sleepy John Estes, Larry Brown and a vast array of other luminaries. I am proud to say this interview led to Jim writing several articles for Swampland/Mystery And Manners.)

Cody Dickinson Interview (This interview took place in July of 2009 while Cody rode the Hill Country Revue tour bus north through American countryside. This conversation illuminated Cody's various pursuits, musical diversity and ongoing search for his indelible musical vision.)

Luther Dickinson Interview (This Q & A with Luther was conducted in January of 2008. Luther just joined and recorded Warpaint with the Black Crowes. He talks about his father as a musical influence, The North Mississippi All-Stars and the musical families like the Kimbroughs, Turners and Burnsides he grew with playing music. At this point, Luther was well on his way to becoming one of the hardest working men in rock and roll.)

Luther Dickinson 2005 Interview

Dickinson Extended Family Swampland Interviews

Stanley Booth Interview Series Vol. 1: Otis Redding (Nov-Dec 2008)

Excerpt #1 -- Excerpt #2 -- Excerpt #3 -- Excerpt #4

Amy LaVere Interview (This insightful interview with Amy took place in the spring of 2008.)

Dickinson Family Swampland Articles

Jim Dickinson's Best Memphis Barbecue & Favorite Meals On The Road

Jim Dickinson All Star Music & Film

Dickinson Extended Family Swampland Articles

Stanley Booth: Can I Get A Witness

Stanley Booth: The King Is Dead! Hang the Doctor!

Dickinson Family Swampland Dispatches

Olga's Whatever You Want featuring Cody Dickinson (6/1/11)

The North Mississippi Allstars Talk Jim Dickinson (3/12/11)

Luther Dickinson & The Sons of Mudboy Earn Grammy Nomination (12/2/10)

Southern Music Folk Festival Dedicated To Jim Dickinson (9/2/10)

Luther & Cody Dickinson In Memphis Tomorrow Opening for Robert Plant (7/12/10)

Reba Russell Recording at Jim Dickinson's Zebra Ranch Studio (2/9/10)

A Timeless American Lineage: The Six Degrees of the Dickinson Family (2/6/10)

The South Memphis String Band's Home Sweet Home (1/25/10) 

Luther Dickinson: Hardest Working Man In Rock and Roll (12/17/09)

Jim Dickinson Featured In Memphis Storytellers Project (11/30/09)

The Word Returns: North Mississippi Allstars, Robert Randolph & John Medeski (10/24/09)

North Mississippi Allstars Record Song For Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Album (10/22/09)

Jim Dickinson Memorial Folk Festival Tonight In Memphis (9/21/09)

Jim Dickinson RIP (8/15/09)

Jim Dickinson's Memphis Benefit (8/3/09)

Get Well Wishes For Jim Dickinson (6/7/09)

A Friday Conversation w Jim Dickinson (5/22/09)

The Black Crowes In Birmingham (11/16/08)

Southern Remedy On The River: The Black Crowes In Chattanooga, Tennessee (6/7/08)

Amy LaVere & The North Mississippi All-Stars Storm Atlanta (5/31/08)

Jim Dickinson On the Line (2/9/08)

Luther Dickinson: Night Before The Tour (1/16/08)

Luther Dickinson & Rich Robinson: Circle Sound (1/21/07)

Dickinson Family Swampland Reviews

North Mississippi Allstars: Keys To The Kingdom

North Mississippi Allstars: Do It Like We Used To Do

North Mississippi Allstars: Hernando

North Mississippi Allstars: Electric Blue Watermelon

Hill Country Revue: Make A Move

Jim Dickinson: Killers From Space

South Memphis String Band: Home Sweet Home

Luther Dickinson and the Sons of Mudboy: Onward And Upward

Dickinson Extended Family Swampland Reviews

Jimbo Mathus: Confederate Buddha

The Black Crowes: Cabin Fever DVD 

The Black Crowes: Before The Frost Until The Freeze

The Black Crowes: Warpaint Live

The Black Crowes: Warpaint

Amy LaVere: Died of Love

Amy LaVere: Anchors & Anvils

Amy LaVere: This World Is Not My Home

Ben Nichols: Last Pale Light in the West

Craig Brewer: $5 Cover Memphis

Larry Brown: Big Bad Love (Mississippi writer & NMAS fan)

Dickinson Family Videos

Jim Dickinson on Memphis Music

Jim Dickinson on Making Big Star's Third 

Jim Dickinson Performs Buffalo Skinner (5/09)  

Luther and Cody Dickinson discuss their early musical experiences

Luther and Cody Dickinson on Recording "Hernando" with Their Father at Zebra Ranch 

North Mississippi Allstars Live at Langerado 2007 

Filmmaker Craig Brewer Reads Jim Dickinson's Production Manifesto

Jim Dickinson on Amy LaVere's Anchors & Anvils


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Muscle Shoals,
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