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."

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.

"That's the thing about the South, it's all different but it's got some of the same spirit everywhere you go," Luther says. "Like around here it's hilly, but it's not hilly everywhere in the South. And I have a car, and for me sometimes you just like to drive around. And you have the power lines running everywhere, so you're driving and you've got all these parallel lines running everywhere and you're cruising through the hills, so everything goes whooshing by in every direction. That's part of home for me. But we've got some of the things that everybody in the South knows how to appreciate as well--great music and dancing, pretty girls, dirt, and drunk afternoons."

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