SPREADIN’ THE BLUES
By Deborah Fagan Carpenter
Otha Turner’s Barn
Their Mississippi roots run deep, and their Mississippi musical roots run even deeper. They’re the North Mississippi Allstars, and with a style heavily influenced by those roots, but uniquely their own, they’re spreading the story of Mississippi hill music all over the world.
Their musical stimulus was established at birth. Sons of well-known musician and producer, Jim Dickinson, Luther and Cody Dickinson were dropped squarely into the middle of the Memphis and north Mississippi music worlds. Among his notable musical accomplishments, Jim Dickinson played piano on The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” and played piano and pump organ on Bob Dylan’s 1998 Grammy winning “Time Out of Mind” album. As a producer, Dickinson’s reputation was legendary, producing memorable songs like The Replacements’, “Pleased to Meet Me.” Dickinson was also founder of the “notorious” Memphis band, Mud Boy and the Neutrons, and today Cody and Luther are among the surviving sons of that group, who now frequently appear as Sons of Mudboy, joining the only living member of the original group, Jimmy Crosthwait. (See: http://porchscene.com/2013/07/15/julys-featured-artist-the-world-of-jimmy/) From an early age the young musicians were afforded plenty of studio experience with their musician/producer father, learning the recording business while playing with well-established performers.
As teens the Dickinson brothers sat at the feet of blues masters R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough after the family made its move from Memphis to the north Mississippi hill country. Frequenting the local juke joints and learning from those third and fourth generation blues greats solidified their “electric blues” inspiration, but the earthy element that would become their hallmark likely came from their relationship with Otha Turner. The Dickinson family were regulars at the Center for Southern Folklore’s Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, (See: http://porchscene.com/2014/07/17/when-cultures-collide-by-deborah-fagan-carpenter/ ) where they got to know Turner and his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, and soon Luther and Cody were regulars at Turner’s annual Labor Day goat barbeque picnic.
Luther Dickinson on guitar and Cody Dickinson on washboard
A promising association was formed between Luther, Cody and Memphis bassist, Paul “Snowflake” Taylor, and as DDT, they had a successful run, opening for established bands and eventually recording a DIY CD, Live at the World Famous Antenna Club. Simultaneously, the brothers were playing and touring with other groups, further expanding their horizons and honing in on what would become their well-known sound.
Cody and Luther became more and more engrossed in hill country blues, which was having a substantial impact on their musical style, and both were expanding artistically in numerous directions. When they debuted as the North Mississippi Allstars at Dixie Fried ‘96, they were an instant hit, but the trend toward the hill blues wasn’t the focus Taylor wanted to pursue, so he subsequently left the group. At that time, Cody and Luther brought on their high school friend, Chris Chew as bassist, and the North Mississippi Allstars began playing regularly on Beale Street, where they began to gain national notice. When dad Jim brought the group in to play on an album that he was producing for John Hiatt, Hiatt was impressed enough to take the North Mississippi Allstars on the road, where they were the opening act, as well as his back-up band. They have gone on to record an impressive number of albums of their own, including three that were nominated for Grammys: Shake Hands with Shorty, 51 Phantom and Electric Blue Watermelon. The group also won a Blues Music Award for “Best New Artist Debut” in 2001.
The Allstars have had many modifications in their line-up since the beginning, including the incorporation of a variety of visiting artists. Sharde’ Thomas, Otha Turner’s granddaughter often joins the group, playing fife, keyboards and percussion and signing vocals, and Lightnin’ Malcom is often on bass. But the foundation of the group remains Cody Dickinson on drums, washboard and guitar, and Luther Dickinson on guitar and vocals.
Collectively the group is smokin’, and individually, the brothers are on fire! Cody, founding drummer of the Allstars, has a 2013 Blues Music Awards nomination in the ‘Best Instrumentalist/Drums’ category. As a producer he has two albums which were nominated for ‘Best Contemporary Blues Album’ at the annual Blues Music Awards. He also has an impressive résumé of contributions to soundtracks for film, but he’s achieving a substantial reputation as a film maker as well. Footage he shot of the group’s performances over the years was incorporated as a significant feature in the video for the group’s World Boogie is Coming album. Take Me to the River, a Cody Dickinson produced award winning documentary, brings together Memphis and Mississippi Delta musicians doing what they do best—creating music. Cody also co-produced the soundtrack for the Take Me to the River video, and is currently working on a Take me to the River production in New Orleans.
Luther Dickinson is on a never ending whirlwind of performing, writing and producing. Touring with the Black Crowes, he worked on their album, Warpaint, and he once again backed up John Hiatt, playing on Hiatt’s album Same Old Man. Shortly after the death of Jim Dickinson, Luther led a musical tribute to his father, which included family, friends and other musicians recording at the family’s Mississippi studio. The resulting album, Onward & Upward, was released under the group name Luther Dickinson & the Sons of Mudboy. In 2012 Luther released his first solo album, Hambone’s Meditations, a second album with the South Memphis String Band, Old Times There…, and Go On Now, You Can’t Stay Here, featuring his new band the Wandering, which includes: Valerie June, Amy LaVere, Sharde’ Thomas, and Shannon McNally. All three albums were released on the same day. Just released in early February of 2016 was his album, Blues and Ballads – A Folksinger’s Songbook: Volumes I & II.
The North Mississippi Allstar’s most recent collective album, World Boogie is Coming was recorded live in 2013 in the recording studio/barn at the Zebra Ranch, the Dickinson family’s north Mississippi home, and the band’s home base. The name of the album was derived from their father’s favorite sign-off— “world boogie is coming.” The album perhaps best exemplifies what the group is all about—bringing the southern roots music to the world through the collaboration of the brother’s genius. And where better to record it than in the heart of the place that gave them their beginning, the place they’re sharing with the world through their rock ‘n roll/blues music. When outsiders label the North Mississippi Allstars a ‘blues band,’ Luther remarks, “I think we’re just a rock ‘n roll band, but Mississippi rock ‘n roll IS the blues.”
The North Mississippi Allstars will appear on Apr 24, 2016 at 9:00 PM at The Joy Theater in New Orleans, LA, and will join the “Wheels of Soul Tour” supporting Tedeschi Trucks Band & Los Lobos, July 8 through Aug 5.
Albums by the North Mississippi Allstars:
- Shake Hands With Shorty (2000)
- 51 Phantom (2001)
- Polaris (2003)
- Hill Country Revue: Live at Bonnaroo (2004)
- Electric Blue Watermelon (2005)
- Hernando (2008)
- Do It Like We Used to Do (2009)
- Keys to the Kingdom (2011)
- World Boogie Is Coming (2013)
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All photos except the World Boogie album cover are by Deborah Fagan Carpenter