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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.

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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.

Luther: Yeah!

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!

Luther: Yeah!

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...

Luther: Yeah!

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.


Hog Days of Summer Will Feature North Mississippi Allstars & More May 23, 2019 10:11

Design by Yellow Hammer Creative

Press Release via Druids Charlity Club

Headlining the 3rd Annual Hog Days of Summer, Druids Charity Club pleased to introduce a band that probably needs no introduction around these parts: North Mississippi Allstars. A mainstay on the southern circuit and beyond for more than two decades, this marks their first return to Montgomery, AL since 2001.

The core of North Mississippi Allstars (NMAS) are brothers Cody (drums, piano, synth bass, programming and vocals) and Luther (guitar and vocals) Dickinson; today they are joined by bassist Carl Dufresne. Founded in 1996, the venerable NMAS embody the longstanding blues tradition of multigenerational music craftsmanship, in their case having learned the magic from their father, the highly regarded Memphis-based musician and producer Jim Dickinson, and their community at large. "We have always identified with other second and third generation artists," says Cody and to be sure North Mississippi Allstars have long allied with the families of Hill Country icons like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough via countless barbeques, tours, collaborations, and good old-fashioned parties.

All of this is to say: this music wasn’t learned- it’s in their blood. Originating in the eponymously-named region in northern Mississippi, the Hill Country Blues sound is distinct from perhaps the more well-known product coming out of the neighboring Delta. Fueled by corn liquor and incubated in heat, it’s punctuated by a focus on percussion, relentless groove, and an underlining rhythmic trance delivered via humming electric guitar. Influential artists such as the electric guitar trendsetting ‘Mississippi’ Fred McDowell, the punchy and groovy R.L. Burnside, and the uber-hypnotic Kimbrough, all demonstrate the key ingredients of this foot-stomping blues sound through their own distinct styles.

It is true that NMAS is deeply steeped in American blues and roots tradition, but they have been increasingly exploring more modern electronic and programming influences, particularly on their last two records. As ever, their latest album, Prayer for Peace, sees the Allstars putting their indelible stamp on classic blues numbers and folk traditionals, including McDowell's classics "61 Highway" and "You Got To Move," while also further delving into some more modern takes such as the electronica they injected into R.L.’s “Long Haired Doney.”

"I think it's our responsibility to the community that brought us up to protect the repertoire," Luther says. "To keep the repertoire alive and vibrant. 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 Cody and I do best. I think it's what we were meant to do." True as always to the blues tradition, North Mississippi Allstars use the basic structures taught to them as the starting point for improvisation and contemporary interpretation, jumping off points for exploration.

Looking at life beyond completion of Prayer for Peace, Luther says: "Now it's time to hit the road. Get to work and spread the word. We recorded this one in the spirit of our twentieth anniversary. Now we're looking towards our twenty-fifth. Twenty years is alright but twenty-five is monumental." Cody shared a similar forward-looking sentiment "This is a new beginning for North Mississippi Allstars. This revitalizing cascade of creativity and explosion of music, it's just been incredible. And I feel like we're just getting started. There's a long beautiful road ahead of us. We're only just now hitting our stride." This set will truly be a special treat, both to the casual blues/roots/Americana music lover; and to those of us who have been watching this dynamic act flourish the past couple of decades.

Watch North Mississippi Allstars perform "Rollin 'n Tumblin" here:

Dale Watson and His Lone Stars

- Austin, Texas - 

Dale Watson, keeper of the true country music flame, carries on in the tradition of many before him, yet his sound is all his own. The Alabama-born, Texas-raised Watson is one of the hardest working (and colorful!) entertainers today and is rapidly approaching legendary status. He is a member of the Austin Music Hall of Fame, a country music maverick,  and a true outlaw who stands alongside Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and George Strait as one of the finest country singers and songwriters out of the Lone Star State. Dale and his ace touring band, “His Lone Stars” are on an exalted list of acts today consistently playing ‘real’ country both live and in the studio.

Unhappy with existing labels, he created the term “Ameripolitan” to distinguish his brand of American roots music from the more pop-oriented sound coming out of Nashville. This style combines a unique blend of western swinghonky-tonkrockabilly and outlaw country into the sound that you hear today. Dubbed "the silver pompadoured, baritone beltin', Lone Star beer drinkin', honky-tonk hellraiser" by The Austin Chronicle, Watson has shined on the late-night circuit (Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman), performed on NPR, and logged numerous performances on Austin City Limits. A veteran touring artist and consummate entertainer, he is on the road more than 300 days a year and has released somewhere north of 30 albums (we lost count).

His musical journey began right out of high school as he started playing clubs and local honky-tonks around Texas. In 1988, it led him to move to Los Angeles. He played in the house band at the legendary Palomino Club in Hollywood for a couple years and recorded some singles before moving to Nashville to write songs for a publishing company. Commercial country did not fit the fiercely independent songwriter, so Dale relocated to Austin, Texas where he got a record deal and began to really find himself as a songwriter and performer. His life has taken more twists and turns than the Rio Grande since then, and he rumbles into the shed today - firing on all cylinders - ready to sweep everything in his path along a journey into the very essence of good-time country music.

 Watch Dale Watson perform "I Die When I Drink" here:

Will Stewart

- Birmingham, Alabama (via Montgomery) -

Originally hailing from Montgomery, Stewart now calls Birmingham home. He'd been away from Alabama for a few years, living in Nashville while earning his stripes as a songwriter, frontman, and lead guitarist. He gained valuable perspective while away, but still, something kept drawing him down South. He'd grown up here, surrounded by the twang of classic country music and the stomp of rootsy rock & roll. Alabama was a complicated place, its history filled with dark characters and cultural clashes, but it was oddly compelling, too. It was home. Unable to resist the pull, Stewart returned to Birmingham. There, after a decade away, he rediscovered his muse: the Modern South, whose characters, complexities, open spaces, and strange beauty are all channeled into Stewart's full-length solo debut, County Seat, a guitar-fueled Americana record, caught somewhere between the worlds of country and electrified rock.

Stewart adds his own perspective to eternal themes of Life, whether it be the musings of a lonely man in his twilight years, the longing for the wonder and innocence of young boundless adulthood, or the realization and acceptance of one’s nebulous existence while confronting and coping with one’s own vices. Sure, there is a passionate yearning in his music, as he explores the mysteries and murkiness of the 21st century South, but an undercurrent of hope is always flowing beneath the surface, punctuated by familiar electrified crescendos and timeless pedal steel guitar righteousness. When Stewart is on stage you’ll perhaps feel the presence of an old friend who’s been away for a while…perhaps there’s something different in the air you can’t explain, but the feeling just feels like…home.

Watch Will Stewart's music video for "Sipsey" here:

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