Allstar Break: North Mississippi Allstars |

Allstar Break: North Mississippi Allstars

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

A lot has happened since the North Mississippi Allstars introduced their take on blues-rock with the two raw, powerhouse albums, 2000’s “Shake Hands with Shorty” and 2001’s “51 Phantom.” The band – brothers Cody and Luther Dickinson, and Chris Chew, who the Dickinsons have known since high school days in North Mississippi’s Hill Country – expanded to a quartet with the addition of singer-guitarist Duwayne Burnside. The Allstars began rubbing shoulders with the likes of Noel Gallagher, of the English band Oasis. They moved their production base from their own cramped Zebra Ranch in Coldwater, Miss., to Memphis’ Ardent Studios, where the Dickinsons’ father Jim had produced records by Big Star and others. Cody accepted his brother’s challenge to become a songwriter, adding to his chores as drummer, guitarist, singer and player of the meanest electric washboard there is. Before gigs, the band practiced singing and actually worked out vocal parts.Perhaps the most significant thing that has happened to the Allstars, though, is a broadening of their musical sensibilities. As they traveled the world, appeared at major pop, blues and jam-band festivals, and formed side projects with keyboardist John Medeski, Widespread Panic’s Jojo Hermann, and steel guitarist Robert Randolph, the Allstars matured as musicians.”When we started making records, we were green country boys,” said Cody, who, at 25, is four years younger than his guitarist brother.In fact, the idea of the Dickinsons as bumpkins in the studio is a laughable one. As toddlers, the brothers spent considerable time in the studio with their father, who has produced and appeared as a sideman with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and the Replacements. According to family legend, Luther’s first word was “studio.” But all the experience of the past two years has been distilled on “Polaris,” the North Mississippi Allstars’ new CD, due out Sept. 9. And by comparison, the new album does indeed make the first two recordings seem like the work of neophytes. “Polaris” is an eye-popping departure from the relatively primitive sounds of “Shake Hands with Shorty” and “51 Phantom.”Everything about “Polaris,” produced by the Dickinson brothers, signals a band with ambitions as serious studio technicians. In the first minute of the album-opener “Eyes,” there are probably as many chords used as on all of the first two albums. The song’s chorus features four-part vocal harmonies and the bridge – well, the fact that there is a bridge shows how much more sophisticated the songwriting has become. (“Shake Hands with Shorty,” in fact, was nothing but covers of tunes by Mississippi bluesmen, especially Fred McDowell and R.L. Burnside.) Song after song shows the progress the Allstars have made as recording artists. A cover of Junior Kimbrough’s “Meet Me in the City” is more smooth soul than rough blues. “Otay” and “Kids These Daze” nod in the direction of Brit-pop, from Oasis on back to the Kinks. The power-pop ballad “One to Grow On” actually has backing vocals from Oasis’ Gallagher and even string parts, composed and arranged by Cody. “Bad Bad Pain” takes off from ’70s soul. Only “Never In All My Days,” and an untitled bonus instrumental jam at the end of the album, are continuations of the rough-edged Hill Country blues that filled the band’s first two albums.”`Polaris’ caught us at a transition, with Duwayne joining the group and Luther encouraging me to step up and add songs to the album,” said Cody, who with his bandmates performs at the Jazz Aspen Labor Day Festival on Sunday, Aug. 31, at 2 p.m. “And writing lyrics together – `Kids These Days’ is the first lyrical collaboration between Luther and me. It’s strange it had never happened before, but that’s big stuff.”Vocally, “Polaris” is at a startling remove from the unpolished blues shouting of the earlier efforts. There are the harmonies, and the pop-style singing on “Otay.” “Be So Glad” has guest Cody Burnside, grandson of Hill Country icon R.L., speed-rapping. “We hadn’t focused on vocals,” said Cody. “We were music heads, music nerds really, trying to learn our instruments. But we’re doing a lot of work on our singing, even setting up vocal sessions before gigs.”The addition of Duwayne Burnside, a generation older than the Dickinsons, has been a huge factor in moving the music forward. The brothers had known Burnside, R.L.’s son, since childhood, seeing him perform at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint, but never considered him a likely candidate for the Allstars. “He was unapproachable,” said Cody. “He was such an amazing pimp. He was so talented, and he had so much else going on for him. He had his own club, restaurant and bar, Burnside Kitchen & Grill. I never in a million years thought I’d be in a rock band with him. He didn’t have to be in a little, scrapping rock band.”But at a picnic thrown by Otha Turner, a nonagenarian cane fife player and Hill Country resident who played on all three Allstars CDs, Duwayne joined the band for an unforgettable version of John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie.” Turner told the Allstars they needed Duwayne in the band. All parties agreed.”Polaris” distances the North Mississippi Allstars from the jam-band world that they often occupy. “A lot of bands in our genre say they try to capture the spirit of their live shows” on their albums, said Cody. “We tried to do the opposite. We wanted to make something that would stand on its own.”There’s almost a concept behind it. It’s really not a jam-band record at all – and we’re not ashamed of being part of that genre, because we all come from the same place, the same grass-roots thing.”A Hill Country creationWhere the North Mississippi Allstars actually come from is Mississippi’s Hill Country, centered around the college town of Oxford, the blues mecca of Holly Springs, and countless music shacks in small villages. Memphis is just a few miles away, over the Tennessee border. It is a region that has produced Elvis Presley (from nearby Tupelo), Mose Allison and such blues players as Burnside, Kimbrough, McDowell, Kenny Brown and T-Model Ford. It is home to the renegade blues label Fat Possum; it is also home to Widespread Panic’s Jojo Hermann who, attracted by the Hill Country sound, chose to live there years ago, and formed a side project, Smiling Assassins, with the Dickinsons.Cody Dickinson was born in Rossville, Tenn., and his early school years were spent in a private school outside of Memphis. But in fourth grade, he and his brother had a sense they were missing out on something.”I remember saying I wanted to go to a public school,” said Cody. “And my parents, bless their hearts, let us do it.” At the Hernando Middle School, in Hernando, Miss., the Dickinsons found what they were looking for. “Honestly, I wanted to go to school with black kids. I embraced that culture. That was a crucial time for us. If I hung out with kids just like me, what’s the point?”The Dickinsons soaked up the blues that was all around their neighborhood, and the soul and rock their father was connected with. And by the time Luther was in high school, the boys had become punk addicts, heavily influenced by Black Flag. Their first band, DDT, was a punk outfit.Eventually, the Dickinsons drifted toward the Hill Country blues. When they formed the Allstars as a duo in 1997, they played faithful versions of tunes by the Hill Country giants. The next year, Chew, a friend from the neighborhood who they knew more as an athlete, joined on bass and vocals. As the band took gigs, they stretched out the songs by jamming in the style of early blues-rock groups Cream and the Allman Brothers.With the release of “Shake Hands with Shorty” and then “51 Phantom,” the Allstars were welcomed as the next great blues-rock band. But they have always showed a desire not to be stuck in a box. They formed the Word with John Medeski and Robert Randolph to play gospel blues, and they collaborated with Hermann, Jon Spencer and Jimbo Mathus of swing band Squirrel Nut Zippers. And the Allstars have long had plans for an album like “Polaris.” In the press notes to the album, Luther says, “We were on a three-record plan and we always knew that number three would be our most ambitious album.” And in a 2001 interview with The Aspen Times, he said, “The third record is gonna be a motherfucker. Part of it is going to be further into the future.”Now that the future has arrived, Cody is amused by the sounds coming out of his band. “`Be So Glad,’ with the rapping and the breakdown, it actually cracks me up,” he said. “I think because it’s good. Laughter is a good thing, isn’t it?”The Allstars’ next move might be to turn things back around. The next album, according to Cody, is expected to be “more a set-up-and-play kind of record.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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