Dirty South

For the North Mississippi Allstars, the blues ain't nothing but dance music

Every band attracts some type. Some draw despondent Goth kids, some draw the fun-loving mod boys, while others attract a Christian audience. Some even draw fun-loving, Christian mod boys, conflicts of interest be damned. But the North Mississippi Allstars--the trio formed by brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson along with bassist Chris Chew--regularly draw a following for which almost any band would give their most prized possession: gyrating women.

"I don't know if it's Cody's drums or what, but girls all over the world come to our shows and dance," Luther says. "And they dance dirty."

Imagine, doing what you love makes young members of the opposite sex stand up and do things with their bodies that are borderline questionable. That must suck. "Everywhere we went, like in London--and London's been very good to us--things just got crazy," Luther says. "It helped that there were two Mississippi girls and two Georgia girls there. They came out and started up and just turned the place inside out, these tall, vibrant, beautiful girls going nuts. But that's just the South coming out someplace else and making itself at home."

That South seems a far cry from the likes of William Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe, but the North Mississippi Allstars are far from your average band. With its debut album, 2000's Shake Hands with Shorty on the Massachusetts-based blues imprint Tone Cool Records, the NMAs served up 10 songs of traditional blues extrapolated almost beyond recognition. The band covers songs by Mississippi blues legends Mississippi Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough, though "covers" is only a loose approximation for what the Allstars do to this material. The band interprets Burnside's "Po Black Maddie" as a bop conversation between a gospel bass line, snappy drum beat, a laid-back rumble of distorted guitar lines, and Luther's sinewy, sandpaper voice, and then folds the bluesman's "Skinny Woman" right into the middle of it. It's an approach that takes the soul of Delta blues, mixes it with the extended guitar excursions of 1970s Southern rock, and delivers it with the sort of up-tempo vitality you'd expect from a Jazz Age rent party.

Though the Dickinson brothers were born in Tennessee and grew up surrounded by music, their musical education was kick-started when they moved to Mississippi. "I grew up listening to psychedelic Southern rock [like] the Allman Brothers, but I also liked Van Halen and Black Flag--and of course [Jimi] Hendrix," Luther says. "And then in my 20s, I started getting into other things. I always knew Fred McDowell, but I guess I didn't know the geography. I'd never really put everything together yet."

At the time, Cody and Luther were playing in DDT, their first foray into the blues. DDT was a straight-ahead affair, and wasn't infused with the sort of joyous abandon that permeates the Allstars. And there probably weren't too many girls dancing to it. "R.L. [Burnside] said that blues ain't nothing but dance music, and I think that's true," Luther says. "Actually, there's two kinds of blues. There's blues that makes you laugh and dance and there's the other blues, the traditional kind. When we first started out all I knew about was the other blues. I didn't know how to do it any other way. So when we first started out we just tried to play it as traditional as we could."

Everything started falling into place once they caught a whiff of how different generations of blues musicians reinvent traditions. "Then I got into the Fat Possum scene, with R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, and that just turned me out," Luther says. "I've always liked the primitive side of the blues."

"And R.L. Burnside is like the Zen-master of psychedelic, modern primitive blues guitar."

In Burnside and Kimbrough, the Dickinsons saw how the more flamboyant elements and rhythm changes of contemporary rock could dovetail into the basic blues structures. These guitarists became the Dickinsons' bridge between the past and present, demonstrating how a rock vocabulary could ease into the basic 32-bar blues progression and make it feel like something relevant to today rather than an artifact from the past. But both Kimbrough and Burnside are from a generation or two ahead of the young Dickinsons, and they were still a little perplexed about how to bring their musical influences into the music they admired.

That remained a mystery until they started going to Junior Kimbrough's Juke Joint in Mississippi, which became their night school for the blues that makes you dance. "It was Junior's son, David, who first opened my eyes to doing really wild stuff in traditional settings." Luther says. "David played [guitar] in Junior's band at the Juke Joint. He'd play the song straight and then at the end he'd just crank up the distortion and go totally Hendrix with it. It's just the generations mixing together, bringing the stuff you listen to into what you learn."

Luther and Cody still had to figure out how to play what they were hearing and seeing. Luther says that writing that way was tricky at first, trying to plot out where to drop a certain lick or pick up the pace felt awkward initially. They had to learn to do it on the fly, almost instinctually. "We started having to do these really long shows, like three- to four-hour shows," Luther says. "And we started to learn how to improvise and incorporate that into the songs we were doing. And it's there that all of Cody's and my other influences started coming into it--the Southern rock thing, the heaviness of '70s rock, the variable and sharp, changing beats. That, along with the bass of Chris, well, that's where the Allstars' sound starts."

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