North Mississippi Allstars create a modern blues sound

North Mississippi Allstars create a modern blues sound
February 26, 2010
By Ernest Suarez
The Washington Post

he North Mississippi Allstars seem to have sprung from the Mississippi mud. The band's attachment to the fabled land of the blues is passionate and profound.

"I've always been drawn to the past," says lead singer and guitarist Luther Dickinson. "I love old music, old books and movies, old sayings, phrases. There's an aesthetic that runs through it all that shapes me."

As a teenager in Mississippi in the late 1980s, Dickinson's fervor for roots music led him to the northern hills, where he encountered a pocket of musicians whose blues departed sharply from the Muddy Waters, B.B. King Delta sounds that had inspired decades of rock-and-roll. It was these interactions that inspired Dickinson and his younger brother, Cody, to form the North Mississippi Allstars. High school friend Chris Chew joined the core unit, which is augmented by a revolving cast of hill country players.

Luther, 37, and Cody, 33, were destined to become musicians. Their father, the late keyboardist-producer Jim Dickinson, worked with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and Ry Cooder, and earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association in 2007. Their mother, Mary Lindsay, is the longtime manager of the family's Zebra Ranch recording studio. The boys began playing guitar when they were about 5.

In high school, the Dickinson brothers formed a punk band, but Luther Dickinson's attention wandered. He became close to the late Otha Turner, an octogenarian hill country farmer and fife and drum player. He would spend afternoons at Turner's farm and began playing music and enjoying "goat sandwiches" at Turner's community barbecues. He also began studying the guitar style of bluesman Fred McDowell and sought out Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, who became mentors.

"When I got turned on to R.L. Burnside and started going to Junior Kimbrough's Juke Joint, it changed my life," Luther Dickinson says. "I thought, 'Here is modern-day electric country blues.' I grew up listening to all the classic stuff on record. I thought blues was a thing of the past. At Junior's you'd have old rural farmers dancing with young girls from Ole' Miss. It was world boogie, black and white people coming together."

"When it comes to roots art forms it really helps to learn to play hand-to-hand, man-to-man. The Kimbroughs had a juke joint, and we had a recording studio, and that's how it got started."

The Grammy-nominated Allstars remain blues-based but display remarkable variety. Luther Dickinson's wide-ranging guitar style evokes Wes Montgomery's jazz riffs, Jimi Hendrix's psychedelic sounds and Duane Allman's soulful slide. In 2007, Rolling Stone magazine christened him a "guitar god." Cody Dickinson's drumming, a combustible concoction of rock, jazz and swing, and Chew's gospel-inspired bass propel the percussion.

The band's seventh release, "Do It Like We Used to Do," is a two-disc plus DVD set of live performances from 1996 to 2008. Highlights include a rollicking 2004 performance at Bonnaroo, which the liner notes describe as a confluence of "two races and three generations met in brotherhood." The 75-minute DVD features interviews and footage from the Dickinsons' recording studio, Turner's farm and Kimbrough's Juke Joint, which burnt down in 2000.

Luther Dickinson says the collection "represents survival for a regional art form and tradition that stubbornly preserves and evolves." And the death of his father last summer has only strengthened his commitment to roots music. Three days after Jim died, Dickinson assembled members of the group's musical family to make a traditional gospel album, "The Sons of Mudboy," in his father's honor.

"Once an Allstar, always an Allstar," Dickinson says. "Those old farmers, guys like Otha Turner, they spoke and played in a language that was blues poetry. There are certain harmonies inherent in nature. It's a force that has to come out."

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