Hog Days Spotlight: North Mississippi Allstars' Luther Dickinson August 12, 2019 12:55
Photos by Jean Frank Photography
Interview by Inge Hill: Druids Charity Club
We caught up with Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars on August 1st while he was on his way to a gig in St Louis, right on the familiar banks of the Mississippi River. The Allstars will be headlining the Third Annual Hog Days of Summer, with support by Dale Watson and Will Stewart. Hog Days will take place in the Union Station Train Shed in Montgomery, Alabama on August 17, 2019. The discussion got into community music, musical collaborations, hill country house parties, BBQ, his approach to recording albums, his intentions with the blues repertoire, country music influences, and mythology in blues music. This interview was conducted by Inge Hill for Live & Listen.
All right, the benefit of the day, as I think you know is a barbecue and Americana music festival in support of Hogs for the Cause. Y'all played at their event down in New Orleans last year with your North Mississippi Osborne project. As you know, the charity benefits the families of children afflicted with pediatric brain cancer. What does playing music for the community mean to you?
Luther: I think that playing community based music is a huge honor and a privilege. I always try to be on my best behavior when I'm playing for a community. You know, it's one thing when you're playing at a nightclub and your friends, family, and fans come out and see you. But when a community invites you in, it becomes totally about them, and it means a lot. I always try to show respect to the community, because it's a responsibility to entertain and to be kind. I think in a lot of ways music is a community service. I always take those situations very seriously.
You know, my favorite thing these days is when I see, like, a mother my age singing along with us. She's dancing and singing along with the kids with a baby on her hip. Then maybe the grandparents are back in the back on a lawn chair. Man, I love that! Cause that's the way we grew up. We grew up watching my dad and his friends play while we were just running around while we were little kids!
Multiple generations, all together in one room, having a good time!
Luther: Love it!
Speaking of that show New Orleans...what a great collaboration that was with Anders (Osborne): North Mississippi Osborne. What new perspectives did you gain through your collaborations with Anders on your music, anything?
Luther: Oh man, Anders has been a huge influence on my life and my art. He's like an older brother to us, and it's funny, as soon as we met and started playing music together, our orbits kept interspersing. We kept on bumping into each other, as we're in the same circle. Recently, we haven't been playing together as much. Our orbits have become much wider. But man I miss him, and I love Anders so much. Anytime to play music with Anders or just to talk to Anders. I cherish those opportunities. He's such a wise person and such a beautiful example of positivity and also shaping your life into what you want. He's been through so much, and he's so creative. He's a true force of nature. Watching him write is like a force of nature.
You know, Carl...we started playing with Anders, and Carl Dufrene was playing with Anders, and now Carl plays with us, cause Anders moved on to some other sounds and Carl just jumped right in with us seamlessly. Which is beautiful man. So we'll bring some Louisiana love to the gig no matter what!
So, hill country house parties are the stuff of legends. It seems I've heard that RL's (Burnside) and Junior's (Kimbrough) must have been among the most infamous. Can you tell us about any of those that you may have attended or played at as an aspiring musician, or what the vibe was like at those parties?
Luther: Oh yeah! Well first of all the traditions are alive and well man. We just played the 14th annual North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, and Junior Kimbrough and his family were well represented and Burnside's family was well represented. We played, and people traveled from near and far to come play. I feel like it's one of those rural regional music traditions. It's a lot like New Orleans with the musical families. It's very syncopated and real heavy. Also, New Orleans music is good time music. It's party music, you know. It's celebratory music. It's not a downer, you know?
Absolutely. There must've been someone manning the barbecue pits. Did y'all ever get into any barbecue at those parties?
Luther: Oh yeah, yeah! Othar Turner...he was a Mississippi fife and drum musician. His annual gig that he held was a picnic, as he called it. It was all based on barbecue and illegal moonshine; selling illegal moonshine liquor, you know? Food, barbecue, moonshine, and corn liquor. Those things go hand in hand with the music. The music of Mississippi hill country is like, you know, screwed and chopped from Texas. There's psychedelic rock from San Francisco; the music reflects the culture and the culture's drinking some good stuff.
Absolutely, it's kind of a blend of a variety of flavors.
Luther: Hahaha, a variety of buzzes.
Right! I do see a comparison of barbecue in that you'll find different flavor, style, and intent across regions of both barbecue and the blues. One thing about the Mississippi blues that I find really unique is the vast difference in styles across regions, and even from one town to the next when you're driving across Mississippi. To what extent did you or does your intimate exposure to this kind of musical blues gumbo effect your approach to the craft today?
Luther: Oh totally. I mean everything I do is filtered through growing up. Not only with the music of my neighborhoods that I grew up in, but also my dad's music, you know? My dad (Jim Dickinson) was a great musician, great piano player, singer, songwriter, record producer. He loved roots music of all kind. Kind of like the Grateful Dead. He would take roots music and use it for framework for his improvisation. He might play a Chuck Berry song or a Bo Diddley song and just jam on it. We learned that from dad as well, you know? The thing about hill country music that we grew up with is rhythmic based more than harmonically heavy. So, we have fife and drum music or RL Burnside's, or Junior Kimbrough. Very drone based music. Very minimal chord changes; which made it sound modern and timeless in a weird way.
Like that drone, it almost reminds me of that persistent heat that you can almost like see radiating off the highway in the summer.
One common element across blues genres is a focus on the feeling over technical perfection. I know y'all record your albums live for the most part. Can you talk about that process a little bit?
Luther: Yeah, we do. Sometimes we layer tracks. That's a fun way to build songs in the studio, but our favorite thing to do is to capture a moment you know? Get a feeling, and we strive to get live vocals. We definitely strive to get live ensemble performances from the musicians. All of the solos are recorded live. All of the improvisations are live, and we're making improvisational roots music. Why would you dissect it to put it together? If you're making rap music, pop music, or commercial music, you know, go for it put together. We're trying to capture what we do night to night out on the road, you know?
So I know you take your role as caretaker to blues music very seriously, kind of protecting the repertoire, but it's clear to me that you don't mean that the music needs to be kept as this static entity like it's in a safe or anything. Can you tell me about your intention here in regards to your role with this vast catalog of blues music from the guys before you?
Luther: Yeah, well you know that comes. My dad was a song collector as a rock first generation rock n' roller and a folk musician. He loved to write songs, but he also just loved songs. He always said that your repertoire, whoever has the most obscure songs in the coffee house was the king of the coffee house in the folk days, you know? He loved good songs and reinterpreting good songs. I learned that from him, and he taught me so many songs. Then also growing up with Othar Turner, who would like teach me by hand, or we would sit on his front porch and just improvise and just make up songs. RL Burnside...he took me on the road in '97, and I just sat at his feet every night singing along. Then these guys teach you these songs by hand, and you owe it to them to pass it along, you know?
It's folk music. It's not disposable pop music. There's nothing the matter with that, you know? It's fun writing songs, making records you want, but when you're talking about folk music and the American art form of being a song spirit, it's important to pass 'em on. And what we like doing with the Allstars is reinterpreting old melodies with a new beat, you know, like making it more palatable and danceable. To me, it's the melody and the poetry that have to be protected. The rest, you can wrap 'em up however you like!
Right, if you bring more people into the fold, more power to you!
Okay, I like that answer a lot. So, the crossover of blues and country music is where we like to play as a festival. It's fascinating how country, blues, folk, and gospel interact converge and diverge. We were kind of talking about this earlier. The other two acts at Hog Days of Summer this year have stronger country leanings. Can you speak to any influences from from your music that leans more towards country that may have affected your style, basically country influences?
Luther: Well, there's definitely the more song oriented style. I didn't grow up playing country music. I didn't grow up listening to country music, but there's definitely elements of rural music in everything. I'm more of a folk singer than a country singer. You know what I mean? I think more of what we do is more like psychedelic folk rock than anything, you know? We're not a blues band or a country band. But what I love...I love the songs like Mississippi John Hurt and the Yodeling Brakeman Jimmie Rodgers. You know he was the first guitar player to sell a million records. Jimmie Rodgers, he was one of those guys that transcends the genre. I just like pretty songs. I like pretty melodies. I don't care what label you put on it.
Right, yeah we can get too much into labels sometimes these days.
Luther: Yeah, I'm really starting to think that all those labels are old fashioned in a way. There's all just products of trying to sell music and put them in bins, you know? Put names on them so they can be sold and be consumed. In this day and age, I think we should be more open minded. It's like...everything is so influenced by everything else now and the future generations are only going to become more so. I think we should abandon those labels.
I agree with you 100%. Okay moving on, I only have a few more questions here. This next ones a little more far out. I want to talk about the mythology behind this kind of music and the persistent symbolism we see. The south, as you know, is known for its storytelling but Mississippi kind of just seems like its on another level. Focusing on music and not the rich literary tradition we have: Casey Jones, the Sugar Man and the Clear Creek Bridge, and of course the Crossroads. We love all that stuff. Is there something in the water over there that creates such vivid stories and imaginations?
Luther: Yeah, that's a great question man! I think that maybe being slow to modernize in the last century is part of it. I just think it's a great tradition of story tellers. You know there's John Henry and Stagger Lee. There's lots of great folk heroes from all regions. You got Aces and Eights. You got the coward Jack McCall. You got folk stories from the Western pioneers, the cowboys!
So, yeah man those folk legends. It's two things that I've been fascinated with in the last ten years. In the last ten years, I've gotten to know the Grateful Dead repertoire from playing with Phil Lesh, and...man! Robert Hunter was fantastic at expanding and adding to the American vernacular. You know, the American folksy road vernacular. It's been awesome to get to know Robert Hunters lyrics more and more. He's on par with Bob Dylan when it comes to the American folk mythology. It's the oral history, you know?
Yeah, I like how Robert Hunter doesn't paint a picture for you perfectly. He leaves a lot to your interpretation...
I can see that seems to fit with the southern mythology as well, where the details are a little sketchy and some of them might be true. Some of it is up to your imagination. It's all a little unclear.
Luther: Exactly, print the legend, haha.
Ah, yep. That's good stuff. Well you're driving into Saint Louis right now. It's got its own rich musical history. You're playing a gig on the banks of the Mississippi River. What were you listening to right now before I called you?
Luther: Oh man! I grabbed a stack of my dad's music to celebrate 10 years since his passing: August 15th. So I'll be listening to his records. I was listening to Ry Cooder's record Boomer's Story when you called. It was really good man, but I haven't listened to a lot of my fathers music since he passed. I really really enjoyed it today. When you mourn someone that you loved so much and collaborated with so much, the music is so close sometimes its been hard to listen to his music. So, it is really enjoyable today yeah.
Yeah he had a huge career, and I know it's a lot of material for you to listen in on. Like what he played on and produced himself.
Luther: Yeah man, we've all been so fortunate. He was fortunate. He grew up in Memphis in the 50's and later on went on to play on "Wild Horses" by the Rolling Stones and the Time Out of Mind record with Bob Dylan. He also produced The Replacements..just a wonderful career! Ry Cooder once again, all the Memphis rock n' rollers and folk music he grew up around. We're just so fortunate man. Like I said, we're so grateful to be granted the opportunity to play the music that we love. We couldn't do that without the support from people, man.
You've been doing something right, for a long time.
Luther: Trying, trying to do my best. That's all I can do!
Right, well I know your family is your rock, and I wanted to say that my wife and I are expecting a little girl in December, our first. Do you have any advice for us?
Luther: Oh, man! Well she'll lead you the way. She'll be the new boss. Just agree with your wife and try to be as easy as possible. Enjoy it! Make time for yourself to enjoy the time with the little ones, you know? It goes so fast, and it's so fun. Congratulations!
Thank you, sir! Yeah, Luther I'm gonna say this one more time, but we are so proud to have you on our stage. It's gonna be a good time in Montgomery, and I look forward to seeing y'all up there!
Luther: Thank you so much man for the support, I appreciate it. We look forward to it! Thank you man.