The Mary Lindsay Dickinson Interview
"Bless your soul
Bless your soul
When your time has come
Youre just dead, not gone..."
"Let It Roll'
The spirit of Jim Dickinson is alive and well at the Zebra Ranch Studios. Ghosts of old bluesman linger in these environs, and The High Priest of Memphis Mojo exists as a potent dose of magic for the good guys in this mysterious Mississippi hill country.
As they say, behind every great man is a great woman. Mary Lindsay Dickinson epitomizes this arcane wisdom in light of her husband of 45 years, Memphis music luminary Jim Dickinson. Shes been along for his entire incredible musical journey. Even by 1969, Dickinson proved a formidable figure on the Memphis music scene. In his article "The 1969 Memphis Blues Show: Even The Birds Were Blue", Stanley Booth wrote of his friend's undeniable musical presence at the gritty Memphis Blues Festival: "There were also such white members of the Memphis musical underground as Lee Baker, a guitarist; Sid Selvidge, a country-folk singer, and Jim Dickinson, who is, among other things, a blues singer." Mary Lindsay was with Dickinson for his whole career during the Memphis underground years, recording with The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Dixie Flyers and raising two music powerhouses--Luther and Cody--as well as remaining by her husband's bedside during his final days.
The Dickinson Family serves as the cosmic nucleus for a community of artists in this part of the country. Mississippi writer Larry Brown wrote this about Dickinson's sons and the fertile music surroundings and the North Mississippi All-Stars ten years ago: "Nobody can explain it, why all this stuff comes out of one little place. I get asked all the time, especially in other places. I get asked in Chicago, in Texas, in Montana, and I don't even know how to say it myself, so I shake my head, say, 'Man, that's just the way it is.' And you don't have to live here to know what's going on, but it helps. It helps me live a happier life being around good music all the time, being able to park my black steel pony on the square and walk down the sideways to catch Luther and Cody and Chris (Chew) doing their thing. It helps being a Mississippi, like these guys. It helps to know they live near my brother in Hernando. It helps to be able to walk into the guitar shop in Oxford and see Luther plugged into an amp in there, just messing around until time for the show, right across the street at Larry's.
"These guys cut their teeth on rock and roll and the blues. It shows. I heard them playing one night a few years ago and I've been a fan ever since. Their live performances will knock your socks off, and now it's cool to be able to have them playing in the truck, or in the room where I spend time working."
Ross Neilsen of the Suffering Bastards wrote a few words recently after recording at The Zebra Ranch Studios, which indicates people will always continue to discover Dickinson's musical gold mine: "I came to learn about Jim through the music he helped create and record. I didn't dig in deeper though until I became aware of the North Mississippi All-Stars. I'm a geek so I always look at who produced, where recorded and who played what. That's how you learn about great musicians. Then as I went back through I realized the musical history and impact he had, whether playing sideman to the greats or sitting behind the console affecting the record merely by his very presence. In this day and age I never thought he would respond directly to me when I contacted him. I took that as a good sign. I watched endless you tube clips to hear his philosophies on music. I read a lot. I was certain he was the only producer for us. Fortunately his vibe has been absorbed into everything there. Obviously into the amazing family and studio, but everything else too--the old School Bus, the "shorty" Lincoln, the wisteria...everything. When we recorded there I would "get the vibe" as soon as I could see the mailbox at the end of the drive. Turning in, you didn't know what was going to happen....but certainly knew that it would be life changing. We never dreamed we'd find another producer that would 'get it'. Thank God Cody offered his skills. The Legend lives on."
Now Mary Lindsay Dickinson remains dedicated to preserving and continuing her husband's music legacy. Her firsthand experience, enduring faith and golden soul render her queen of hearts in The Zebra Ranch kingdom. In this Swampland interview, she describes the final months of his life, the family's shock, recent activity at the Zebra Ranch studio and the golden future of The Dickinson Family...
James Calemine: I'm sitting in the room now where I heard Jim died on August 15, 2009. I know his passing was tough on you, Luther and Cody...what a void...
Mary Lindsay Dickinson: Jim and I had been married for 45 years. Losing him created a huge hole in my life. It's painful to miss someone so much, but on the other hand, Jim was far seeing. Even in his illness, he gave us specific instructions about what to do after he passed. 'I want this to be my epitaph: "I'm just dead. I'm not gone." Bob Mehr of the Commercial Appeal, who did a wonderful job of memorializing Jim and following up on the events after his passing, put that epitaph in the first article that went out.
In a five hour interview Joann Self of True Story Pictures did with Jim about two months before he had his first heart trouble, Jim said in reference to Luther and Cody, 'They don't know this, but even after I'm dead I'll be producing their records.' Jim said many times his favorite kind production is in absentia--in his absence. Almost everybody that comes to the Zebra Ranch can feel him. His mojo is still there.
JC: So, what's been going on at Zebra Ranch Studio?
MLD: It's been very busy since Jim died. The day after Jim's private memorial service Luther took the sons of Mudboy and Kevin Houston, our engineer, and recorded old timey gospel songs and two originals,one he wrote the day Jim's mother died and "Let it Roll", which Luther the day of the session about Jim's passing. Luther will tell you more about the date. I couldn't stay in the room. It was too soon. I'd look up and see pics on the wall of Jim happy and smiling. I had to leave. Onward and Upward turned out great and is touching a lot of people. But that was a family project, the music of mourning and celebration for Jim. The commercial rebirth of the Zebra Ranch occurred the day after Jim died.
Luther was with his wife a few miles away but Cody was alone. I asked told him to come to the Ranch to be with me. We talked and cried about Jim and how much we loved him. Then we started talking about the future of the studio. At that point we thought we might shut everything down. We were in shock. I told Cody about Ross Nielsen and the Suffering Bastards. Jim really liked this band. They got in touch with us out of nowhere and we knew right away Ross was hip. Jim liked their demo tapes. He invited them to come to Mississippi and record. Jim told them he 'could put his considerable whammy on their music.'
I hated the thought we were going to have to can the project. I played Cody a couple of their tracks. Jim always wanted raw demo tracks. ..That's what I played Cody. Cody said, I can produce that.' Luther, Cody and I decided the best way to honor Jim's memory was to keep his sonic genius and musical ambiance alive at The Zebra Ranch. We were ready to rock. The Suffering Bastards felt the same way.
We were glad to see the them roll in from Canada. Ross' voice is completely true. He sounds like a cross between Lucero's Ben Nichols and a young Bob Dylan. The CD they recorded at the Zebra Ranch will be called Redemption.
Kevin revealed 'For the Ross Neilsen session, I was really amazed at Ross's live vocals and t ýhe feel that the band has with each other. The groove is a tangible presence in their sound. You can hear them listening to each other and grooving off each other, all the while in service to the vocals and lyrics of the songs. They are a great band playing great songs.'
The Sugar Cube Blues Band were the very first band that Jim produced back in the sixties They are Bill Crowder and Budley Bays. They are an old-time blues band. They play Mississippi music. Crowder writes his own material and it's absolutely great. They had recording dates booked when Jim got sick. Even after Jim passed they were hungry to work at the Zebra Ranch. Budley got in touch with me after I sent them an email to let them know the Zebra Ranch was still up and running. I
On the sessions Justin Showah played bass. Duff Durf, Cody, and Budley played guitar and Bill sang. W. S. "Fluke" Holland behind the drums transformed the session. He had been Johnny Cash's only drummer. Before that he was Carl Perkins' drummer. He played on "Blue Suede Shoes", "Dixie Fried" and all of Carl Perkins' records on Sun in the 50s. Fluke told me 'It's comfortable being in this studio. The vibe is so good. The place is so cool. It's all Jim Dickinson mojo. It's definitely the place to come to make a real record.'
The drum room has these rocks on stucco, and the man who put the rocks in said they were meteorites. I don't know about that, but the room has a great sound. Fluke said, 'I was humbled to be working with y'all.' Cody said it was his favorite session ever.
Andy Cohen from Memphis recorded at the Zebra Ranch in December. He's an encyclopedia of blues. He's the dolceola man. He had already recorded Doceola Favorites at the Zebra Ranch. Andy had a deal with Earwig Records, whose CEO is Michael Frank. Earwig is a very old, famous blues label. Honeyboy Edwards was on it. Andy cut a dynamite record in one day and mixed it in one day. The name of the record is Built Right On the Ground, which Andy says is a description of the studio, and come to think of it, it really is built right on the ground. It's a classic blues record with songs from the 20s and 30s, like old country songs and a Jimmie Rodgers song. We're all proud of Kevin's mix. Kevin worked on every single record Jim produced at Zebra Ranch and he picked up Jim's hands-on production technique. Cody learned a lot about Jim's style through osmosis. Cody's quote was 'With Kevin's engineering and my production, we offer a one-two combo that lives up to Dad's knockout punch.' Andy wrote a tribute to Jim called "The Jim Dickinson Stomp", which is dolceola and guitar. On the record it's going to say produced by Jim Dickinson--in absentia. Everybody has picked up on that. He's just so present. 45 years of studying, playing, recording and just doing the best he could to create such a wonderful sound on every Zebra Ranch recording. You can pick up any of his records and see how great the sound is. That's why people come and the sound is still here.
Next week, the Reba Russell band was here. Reba is the rowdiest girl singer that ever hit Memphis, Tennessee. This is her second record at the Zebra Ranch. I walked in the studio a couple of days ago, and she threw up her arms and screamed, 'I love recording at the Zebra Ranch!' . We have a beautiful M-model Baldwin Grand Piano from the fine folks at Baldwin and we use it exclusively. It's specially tuned, or as Jim would say focused. Tony Thomas the jazz player himself comes out and works on whenever we have a session. Nighthawk, Reba's keyboardist, said, 'Playing piano at the Zebra Ranch is like whipping cream.' The All-Stars will be cutting a record and the Hill Country Revue, too. You should come out and visit, James...
JC: Well, we'll just make that journey the next installment of the ongoing Mary Lindsay Interview Series...
MLD: That sounds like a good idea.