A FEW MINUTES WITH… Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars
By Don Wilcock
New Year’s Eve comes a day early at the Cohoes Music Hall. Sunday night’s (December 30) concert there by the North Mississippi Allstars is a fitting addendum to the Weight Band’s concert at the same hallowed hall a few weeks ago. These two shows are like bookends to the rich heritage of American popular music.
The North Mississippi Allstars’ sound is built on a base of the southern Delta’s Hill Country blues sound, an answer to The Band’s marvelous blend, itself the antecedent of The Weight Band’s Woodstock fiery wood-stove style. Both bands use the fundamentals of their respective regional heritage blended with influences from the last half century of contemporary rock to create patchwork quilts of original music that become contemporary legacies confirming America’s continuing creative mastery of the sounds that have been the soundtrack of our history since this country was founded.
Like the Weight Band, The North Mississippi Allstars are consummate musicians who tour almost constantly and infuse their explosive energy into concerts that bring entire festival audiences to their feet. Their performance at the Chenango Blues Festival a few years ago was one of the best ever presented there, matching that of Elvin Bishop whose heritage goes back to his days with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The mere thought of the Allstars playing a 400-seat theater with fabulous acoustics and amazing sight-lines from every seat is almost more than I can imagine. What a capstone for a year-end celebration.
In 2017, I asked guitarist/vocalist Luther Dickinson if he had any secrets to reveal about how his band has become one of America’s legacy acts in a long line that includes The Dead, Dylan and The Band. “I think just keeping it up. Just continuing. We’re so lucky that we have such a nice healthy fan base to work with, and we’re a working-class band. We have such a wonderful audience. It’s not pop music. I represent the underground (mostly) whether it be Memphis rock and roll or hill country blues, genres or subgenres. I am so thankful to be able to support my family playing his music and representing the underground. I’m not trying to be (mainstream) in any way.”
Their Cohoes concert is nine shows into a winter tour that began with a performance at the legendary New Orleans club Tipitina’s that was home to Professor Longhair and Dr. John. They land here the night after playing Boston on a tour that includes stops at The Roxy in Hollywood, the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride in March and concludes at the Orpheum Theater in New Orleans on April 26.
“I think it’s our responsibility to the community that brought us up to protect the repertoire, to keep the repertoire alive and vibrant,” explains Luther. “That’s what folk music is about. It’s an oral history of America. My dad and his friends, they learned from Furry Lewis and Gus Cannon and Will Shade and then taught those songs to us. It’s important for us to write songs and experiment and do other things, but playing our community’s music in a modern way is what (his brother and drummer in the band) Cody and I do best. I think it’s what we were meant to do.”
I asked him if there were any lines his band refuses to cross stylistically involving the Allstars’ hill country blues legacy. He laughed and quoted Cody. “He says the only way to do it is to go too far and then fall back. One thing that I won’t do is, and I’ve probably been guilty of it in the past, but I just won’t sing (lyrics) I can’t relate to. I try not to sing about going to jail because I’ve never been to jail. And I’ve become more sensitive to that as time goes on.”
Luther and his brother are free spirits. There’s a certain maverick rebelliousness to the Allstars, a kind of William Faulkner feeling of living close to the edge, tempered with an intellect that transcends the punk mentality of DDT, the band the brothers led before founding the Allstars.
Luther and Cody’s dad, Jim Dickinson, in his memoir “I’m Just Dead I’m Not Gone,” writes, “Otha Turner (a Delta legend) taught my sons that tradition transcends color lines and generational boundaries. It’s a complicated process of push and pull from both sides of an ever-changing line in the sand.”
Dad was a poet who happened to play music and recorded with The Stones on “Wild Horses.” Luther quotes his father as saying, “I have taught many a young musician, my sons included, to play every note like it’s your last one because one of them will be.”
Jim Dickinson produced several albums for the Allstars, who did a tribute album Keys to the Kingdom after he died in 2009. Dad writes, “After family friend Kenny Brown took Luther as third guitarist on tour with R.L. Burnside, the boys hit the road. The North Mississippi Allstars make no claim to being a blues band. Something happens when white boys play the blues. Rock ‘n’ roll. Whether it’s Elvis. The Beasties, or Mudboy.”
The North Mississippi Allstars are able to slip from one style to another without ever abandoning their own identity. The group had the mojo 11 years ago. In 2007 Luther told me, “You gotta stay cool and keep your cool, and you gotta play the best you can and concentrate on listening. That’s my key for everything. I just listen to
everybody else and let my playing come through subconsciously. If I just concentrate on everybody else, then I don’t have worry about what I do as opposed to just blowing on top of whatever’s going on. Every time you’re in the zone, then it doesn’t matter what the surroundings are or the people playing with you. Just concentrate and listen to the music, and just try and be a part of the moment.”
Prayer for Peace, the North Mississippi Allstars’ most recent album, was recorded on the fly at studios in St. Louis, Kansas City, New Orleans, Brooklyn, Austin and Dad’s Zebra Ranch in Hernando, Mississippi. I asked Luther how the decision to record like that related to his father’s advice on how to capture mercury in the bottle?
“That is really a great question because he was all about capturing the live (vibe) in the studio. He would always try to (protect) the first take, the first initial casual – not even a casual – run through in the studio. Capture the beast in his natural habitat. We’re a live band first and improvisational at heart, and we’re interpretive at heart. So, it seemed to work well for us.”
The title cut, “Prayer for Peace,” is a powerful song about being color blind. “I think open-minded people in all walks of life with their passions transcend the neighborhood boundaries. Just because we’re musicians we’re music-centric people. I think it’s wrong to say that musicians are more enlightened than others, because I
know people from all walks of life who are completely open minded.”
Perhaps nothing Luther Dickinson has done illustrates his free spirit better than when he abruptly signed on as the lead singer for the Black Crowes and appeared on three of their albums. To divide his time between two such high profile bands reflects both a sense of independence and self-assurance similar to Warren Haynes’ split duties with Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band or Rod Stewart’s time as both a solo act and with The Faces back in the 1970s. “That was a hard balance,” admits Luther. “I had to do it. I had to do it. Well, our team told us we had to figure out a way to get our band off the road. We’d been touring too hard for too long. So, I used that as a way to get the Allstars off the road. But I kept the group together during that time and gave everybody a break.”
The North Mississippi Allstars, unlike their dad, are very much above the radar. They use a hauntingly beautiful and Zen treatment of hill country blues as a foundation to paint a broad musical tableau that encompasses American musical legacy. The Allstars won Grammy Awards for their first two albums in 2000 and 2002. “You know, we had such a long apprenticeship,” says Luther. “We were really late bloomers. (That win) really felt good.”
There are fundamentally two kinds of acts that attain the kind of visibility and success the North Mississippi Allstars have – those who stick to a formula that bred their success and those who glide on their muse and let their gut guide them. Truth and heart overcome commercial considerations.
“The blues is not children’s music,” says Luther. “We get better at it, the older we get. We’re so fortunate to be able to do it. My dad used to say North Mississippi Allstars make a statement just by walking on stage.”
The North Mississippi Allstars use hill country blues as a foundation to paint a broad musical tableau that encompasses American musical legacy, doing for southern music what The Band did for Appalachia and northeastern folk, the Dead did for West Coast and Dylan did for the midwest.