Fortunate sons: The North Mississippi Allstars carry on the musical legacy of a famous father
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It was a moment the Dickinson boys won’t ever forget, coming off the stage after a playing their hearts out as the North Mississippi Allstars to find one of their musical heroes waiting for them.
In retrospect, Gregg Allman’s poker-faced bit of advice rings even more profound for the brothers — Cody and Luther — both from the perspective of the man who said it and their own, looking ahead to new music and new milestones without their beloved father, Jim, who died in 2009.
“We did this show, opening for the Allman Brothers, and after the show we were coming off stage and Gregg was standing there,” Luther Dickinson told The Daily Times during a recent phone interview. “He saw some of the set, and as we were coming off, he said, ‘You guys are brothers, right?’ And then he said, ‘Man, make every day count and take care of each other.’ I thought that was so heavy, coming from a hero of mine.”
No doubt, Allman was thinking of his late brother, band co-founder Duane, a legendary guitarist who died in a motorcycle wreck in 1971. And when he recalls that story, there’s little doubt that Dickinson is thinking of his father, whose absence looms large in the North Mississippi Allstars camp. The band’s most recent album, “Keys to the Kingdom,” is the brothers’ first without their father as the producer; as a result, the liner notes state that the album was produced for the elder Dickinson instead of by him.
Like every North Mississippi Allstars album, “Kingdom” is a rollicking tour of the hill country from which the boys came — jump blues, gospel flourishes and front-porch rock ‘n’ roll that’s a soundtrack to good times, family gatherings and roadhouse Saturday nights. But there’s an undercurrent of mourning in this particular collection of songs as well, a nod to their collective grief and to their firm belief that their father has moved on to a spiritual reward not of this earth.
“Just writing the songs was definitely a part of the grieving process,” Dickinson said. “It wasn’t like we were working through it; it just came out. It’s the strongest batch of songs we’ve ever written, as far as the way they came to be. And as we made the record, we didn’t try to dwell on it. Our dad taught us that making records should be fun.
“We we went in and worked really fast and efficiently. For Cody, that was the fourth record he’d done in a month, so he was on a roll; just really in top form, and he played his ass off. Music is a celebration of life, and I think that’s what we were doing with this record — celebrating dad’s life and memory. And his presence, through the music.”
Their father’s association with music is a point of pride for the Dickinson boys, as well as for West Tennessee, where Dickinson set up shop in Memphis as a producer who worked on classic albums by such artists as Ry Cooder, Big Star, Jim Keltner and The Replacements. The Dickinson brothers could play an instrument before they could ride a bike, and hill-country blues, gospel and roots music are as much a part of their background as songs of worship are to a Southern Baptist preacher who’s never lived more than a mile from the church in which he grew up.
By their teenage years, the brothers were playing in Memphis punk bands but gaining an even better appreciation for the music of their birthplace. Through that rediscovery, they formed the Allstars, joined by Chris Chew on bass. The band began a run of twice-a-week, four-hour long shows on Beale Street in Memphis, and from there, the group exploded, releasing “Shake Hands With Shorty” and 2001’s follow-up, “51 Phantom.” “Polaris” followed in 2003. “Electric Blue Watermelon” came out in 2007, followed by the more stripped-down “Hernando” in 2008, but when they came back together to make “Keys to the Kingdom,” a lot had changed.
Luther had been picked up as a guitarist for the Black Crowes, holding his own with the talent of that band’s axeman, Rich Robinson. Cody had spent the past several years focusing on Hill Country Revue, a side project with family members of late blues legend R.L. Burnside, among others. In fact, both men were on the road when their father died in August 2009 after health struggles, and coming back together under the North Mississippi Allstars banner provided all manner of emotions — joy, solace, reflection and sorrow among them.
“Art reflects your life, and Lord knows we’ve been through a lot of intense life,” Dickinson said. “The songs came really quickly and strongly, and we recorded it very quickly and honestly. We were definitely glad to be doing it and be together, and it was a pleasure to make. It’d been too long since we’d been in the studio together.”
The emotions on “Keys to the Kingdom” run the gamut — from the bombastic “This A’Way” to the backtalking jive of “Jumpercable Blues.” There’s a swampy voodoo vibe to the narrated-by-a-zombie song “New Orleans Walkin’ Dead” and a gritty, dirty dirge that belly-crawls over Delta marshlands on “Ain’t None O’Mine.” But the album’s high point is one that might bring tears to the eyes of those fans who consider the Dickinson brothers family — “Ain’t No Grave,” a somber, heartwarming eulogy for their fallen patriarch: “Looked death dead in the eye as he passed me by / ‘I’ll see you later, son, I’m here for your father / come for you later, I’m here for your father.’ / When the day comes death comes back my way, I would hope to be as brave / As he was on Judgment Day ...”
If the boys never make another record, they couldn’t bow out on a more beautiful, graceful one than “Kingdom.” Of course, that’s not a scenario either man envisions. They have a number of side projects in the works — Luther’s South Memphis String Band, Cody’s Hill Country Revue — and given their popularity as session players, it’s doubtful they’ll ever be hurting for work, either together or apart.
“In the music business, you have to have different side projects, because it’s virtually impossible, as we’ve learned in the past, for one unit to tour nonstop — and we can’t afford not to work for an extended period of time,” he said. “Right now, I’ve got two different Allstars types of projects I’m conceptualizing. One is a more gospel-oriented band type of project with all kinds of outside singers. Another is a very stripped-down thing, a way for me to interpret songs into the Allstars universe.”
Any such separation, however, would likely only be temporary. They are, after all, a band of brothers — and of all the lessons they’ve learned over the years, from men like Gregg Allman and from their dear departed dad, it’s that family is the most important thing.
“We’re having a blast, man,” Dickinson said. “I love playing with Cody and Chris, and it’s so great to be back together. When we weren’t playing, I missed them dearly. There’s just so much appreciation and respect for one another that it’s great. I think we’re really strong right now, and we’re just doing our damn thing. We’re just doing the best we can with what we got.”