Dirty South

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

Such a story sounds as old as Mississippi soil itself: young musicians receiving their education from their elders. But it's what gives the Allstars music such an organic vibe, the tangible grit in the groove that could only come from learning how to do it firsthand. It's a legacy passed down from a group of musicians who remember a time when music was as much a part of their communication as language itself, and that music was constantly evolving as it traveled from one performer's mouth into another's ears.

"Robert Johnson would take somebody else's melody and put new lyrics to it," Luther says. "And that attitude's still around here. I feel really fortunate for growing up in Mississippi. I got to know [blues fife player] Othar Turner. He really taught me a lot about life and the blues. He's 92. He's like Johnson's age, if he was still around--or at least Muddy [Waters]. [ed. Turner is three years older than Johnson.] And that's just part of growing up here. You not only listen to but hear John Lee Hooker, Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Muddy Waters--all that good shit."

As important as the musical education is the social setting in which it's fostered. This blues attitude is social by nature, and hearing Luther talk about Mississippi nightlife, you get the feeling that Burnside's comment about the blues stems entirely from this little pocket of conviviality below the Mason-Dixon line. "In Mississippi, music brings a sort of racial accord," Luther says. "You go into Junior's Juke Joint, and you'll find locals, people from the distant parts of the community, kids, 18-year-old Ole Miss girls [University of Mississippi students], and they're all dancing. You got the finest teenage girls in the world dancing with these gnarly, old farmer dudes to this hill-country boogie--that's where our music is coming from."

Luther is also being a bit modest. He presents his musical background as if he were purely a product of his social environment. The fact is he was born into a musical legacy that goes back over 30 years, and he and Cody are well-versed in a musician's life. "Man, we've been on the road a lot," Luther says. "The record came out [last] May, we went to Europe, then we came back and [toured] the South and West. Then we went back to Europe--we went there three times last year. The holidays have been chill though. Except even when we're back, we're in our studio recording our new album. It's going to be all original material. And our dad is producing it."

Dad is living legend Jim Dickinson, a Memphis guru who has given his considerable piano and organ skills to the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, the Flaming Groovies' Teenage Head, Primal Scream's Give Out But Don't Give Up, Slobberbone's Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today, Jerry Jeff Walker's Bein' Free, and Aretha Franklin's overlooked gem Spirit in the Dark, on which Duane Allman plays guitar. He's also produced some of rock's certifiable nuggets, such as Big Star's Third/Sisters Lovers, Alex Chilton's Like Flies on Sherbert, and the Replacement's Pleased to Meet Me.

"It's great," Luther says about being produced by his father. "We're paying him. We've recorded with him all our lives. On the last record he was working with Alvin Youngblood Hart and so we did it ourselves. It was the first time we did that, but we had learned so much from him that it went just fine. Just being around him and learning about the hypnotism of production and the philosophy behind doing things gave us the confidence to do it ourselves."

Being so familiar with one another has also produced its share of unique circumstances in the studio. "Dad says we're immune to his production," Luther says, laughing. "He likes having fresh meat that he can squeeze--'victims' as he calls them. But it's still really volatile. Anytime you get music, business, and family together, that's going to happen."

Father Jim is himself Southern by birth, and Luther zealously points out that the Allstars are a very Southern affair. It's a heritage of which he's very proud, though even in the States, he encounters stereotypes that get on his nerves. "One misconception that I can't stand about the South is that we don't get along with each other," Luther says. "Memphis and Mississippi are pretty much a widely black population. But people get along great. I went to public school, no problems there, black musicians play with white musicians, no problems there, we go to the same stores and eat the same things. People get along with each other really well. And I can't stand when you see things about the South and they just get it wrong--like that movie A Time to Kill. I hate that."

Just as Texas has the Hill Country, the Panhandle, and East and West regions, each with its own set of smells and ways, culturally the South is as variegated as its music. It's a region that can accommodate the raucous antics found in the novels of Harry Crews, the restrained sarcasm of Flannery O'Connor, the existential angst of Walker Percy, or the sassy camp of Tennessee Williams. It's why Atlanta and Savannah feel like they're in different universes, let alone different area codes and zip codes. Even though the South may be a hodgepodge of eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, it can instantly recognize its own.

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