North Mississippi Allstars shake hands with the blues
The North Mississippi Allstars – brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, Chris Chew and recently added Gary Burnside – do not take their name lightly.
Sure, the band has its roots in North Mississippi, in what is known as the Hill Country. The Dickinsons, sons of prominent producer and session player Jim Dickinson, moved to Mississippi from Rossville, Tenn., some 15 years ago, just in time for their blossoming teen years. And though the boys had been hanging around their father’s studio as toddlers – Dickinson family legend has it that Luther’s first word was “studio” – the move had much to do with the brothers starting to pay serious attention to their instruments.
“We started going to public schools in Mississippi, and that was great,” said 27-year-old Luther. “That’s when we really started making music. We always played and were always fascinated by it. We always loved hanging out with our father, and all the musicians he hung around with.
“But it was the period of time when I was 12 or 13. That’s when music and the guitar became my best friend. And moving had part to do with it. We moved in the summer and school hadn’t started yet, so we didn’t know anyone. We just played music.”
The North Mississippi part of the name, however, is about more than where the Dickinsons grew up and developed their passion for music. Eventually, the Dickinsons got to know the boys in the neighborhood, many of whom happened to be musicians. There were Garry and Cedric Burnside, grandchildren of bluesman R.L. Burnside, and Othar Turner, a fife-and-drum player who was in his 80s when the Dickinsons met him. And the boys began to soak up the Hill Country sound.
“It’s like when you get a car and start exploring for yourself,” said Luther, who lives in Independence, a tiny town with no police and no traffic lights. “The young just get together and jam and drink beer and have a good time together. It’s a great little scene we got going. There’s so many young second-generation musicians in the Hill Country. It’s very incestuous with all these bands.”
Since the Allstars were formed some four years ago, as a trio of the Dickinsons and bassist/singer Chew, the Allstars have drawn heavily on the rich musical tradition of their namesake territory. The area has been home to some of the greatest, and most innovative, musicians to play the blues – “Mississippi” Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough most prominent among them.
The Allstars debut CD, titled “Shake Hands With Shorty” (regional slang for peeing), features nothing but covers of songs from the Hill Country tradition. But the tunes are hardly done in traditional blues fashion. Luther says there is no doubt that the Allstars are a rock ‘n’ roll band. But like Cream or the Allman Brothers Band, the Allstars start with a heavy blues base for their music; Luther’s stinging guitar leads add a modern jam-band element, and Cody’s drumming is hard-driving rock ‘n’ roll.
The Allstars didn’t set out to play rock ‘n’ roll. Luther says that when the band started, it played the Mississippi blues in as traditional a fashion as possible, often copying original versions of songs almost note for note. “But we started playing really long shows, so we had to stretch it out,” said Luther.
Dickinson likes the idea of taking the tradition and taking it someplace new. The band’s next album, he said, would feature all original material.
“A lot of these modern jam bands don’t have an old-fashioned sound, but their influences are all decades old,” he said. “They’re all coming from the same place. It’s the small idiosyncrasies that makes it distinctive.
“What’s so fascinating to me about the Hill Country is it’s a contemporary phenomenon. Fred McDowell died in 1972; Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside and Othar Turner, those guys have all been doing it recently. It’s modern blues; it’s contemporary urban blues. And when we play it, it turns into something else. But we’re not the only people bastardizing it.”
“Shake Hands With Shorty” was released in May to high praise, including a glowing review in Rolling Stone. Even before the disc was released, the Allstars had been featured in a New York Times article. The band hasn’t had much time to revel in the glory; days after the album was released in the States, the band took off to Europe for several weeks. But Luther, for one, was looking forward to getting back to the States and building on the momentum that has been building in their absence.
“All I know is, we’re going to do a long tour,” he said. “And I love that.”
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Posted: Friday, July 21, 2000
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