North Mississippi All Stars

Mar 21, 2010 by

Spreading the world boogie”

 Written by Mark Brut

 Ask someone who the busiest people in rock and roll are and one name usually comes to mind, Warren Haynes.  But maybe people need to start including the members of the North Mississippi All Stars in the conversation.

Brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson grew up in Hernando, Mississippi under the tutelage of their father, the late Jim Dickinson, a widely renowned musician and producer, who famously played piano on the Rolling Stones “Wild Horses” and has played with, mentored, and produced countless musicians of all genres.  Exposed at an early age to an incredible musical education of delta blues and Memphis soul, Luther and Cody formed the North Mississippi All Stars with bassist Chris Chew in 1996.

I interviewed Luther Dickinson for this article by phone as he drove through New Orleans.  Luther was more than happy to speak with me about any topic I brought up and is clearly energized.

To understand the scope of what the members of the North Mississippi All Stars are doing, consider this.  In the past 3 years alone, the North Mississippi All Stars released a studio record, “Hernando”, a live record and DVD, “Do It Like We Used To”, and several additional live releases.  In addition to their own tours, they have backed John Hiatt, Charlie Musselwhite and Mavis Staples and toured as The Word with John Medeski and Robert Randolph.  Luther Dickinson has contributed to two separate Black Crowes albums, joined full time as their lead guitarist and toured nationally.  He also has toured and recorded with his side project, the South Memphis String Band.  Cody Dickinson and Chris Chew have fully realized their side project, Hill Country Revue, releasing a studio album and touring behind it.  All of is why an article about the North Mississippi All Stars needs to be about a lot of other things as well.

In 2005, after a hiatus, The Black Crowes decided to reform with what was perhaps their best lineup, including guitarist Marc Ford, which had previously split up in 1998.  They toured heavily for almost 2 years before the lineup again unraveled without a single studio song being released.

Following the same, it wasn’t completely unexpected when the Black Crowes approached Luther Dickinson in 2007.  Luther states that he and the Crowes definitely knew of each other when they came calling.  “We were friends separately.  Chris (Robinson) started coming out to sit in with us starting with the Bonnaroo Hill Country Revue show in 2004, and then Rich (Robinson) and I exchanged phone numbers and he started inviting me out, so we did a few things together.  Rich then called me up to play on “Warpaint” and we just kept going from there.” 

With Luther in the fold, The Black Crowes have now released 2 outstanding studio albums, 2007’s “Warpaint” and 2009’s absolute gem double CD “Before the Frost…Until the Freeze”, which was recorded basically live in front of a lucky audience of fans at Levon Helm’s barn in upstate New York.  The addition of Luther Dickinson on guitar and keyboardist Adam McDougal has sparked the band in an extremely positive way, both live and in the songwriting process, to where the band by many accounts is sounding as good as they ever have.  2009 was certainly a banner year for the Black Crowes on many levels.  Luther concurs, stating “all my expectations have been exceeded.  It’s all coming together and we’re having a blast.”

I asked Luther how difficult the decision was to join the Crowes in relation to the North Mississippi All Stars.  Luther said he quickly enlisted the advice of some other rock veterans with similar track records of taking on a lot of projects at once.  “It was a tough decision, and I must say that Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes helped me out and gave me a lot of good advice on how to handle it.  I think in a lot of ways it ended up being healthy for us to step back and do our own thing.  It allowed Cody to focus on Hill Country Revue and do his own thing, which I know is very satisfying to him”. 

In a situation that could have potentially caused friction between brothers Luther and Cody, it seems to have made them stronger, and that is a credit to their individual personalities and upbringing.  In an article before his passing with Swampland, Jim Dickinson stated about the situation “Cody’s response to the Crowes situation—I gotta say—I’m really proud of.”  I asked Luther about the way his brother handled the same and the quote from his father and he said, “surely man, he really stepped up to the plate.  I’m so proud of him, and that makes me feel better about (joining the Crowes).”

During Luther’s recent long stint touring with the Black Crowes, the remainder of the North Mississippi All Stars, drummer Cody Dickinson and bassist Chris Chew, charged forward with their side project, Hill Country Revue.  This band was born from the 2004 ensemble of the same name that tore up the Bonnaroo music festival.  That recording has since been released as a live record.

Hill Country Revue now includes Cody Dickinson, Chris Chew and Kirk Smithhart, Ed “Hot” Cleveland and Daniel Coburn.  Much of the material for this project was written by Garry Burnside, who Luther describes as “the Willie Dixon of the North Mississippi Scene…such a great songwriter.”  In 2009, Hill Country Revue released their debut record “Make a Move” and toured extensively behind the same.  Luther also stated that he and Cody have been recently assisting Chris Chew in completing his first solo release.

Luther is quick to acknowledge that this is a very fertile time for all involved.  “We’re just at this awesome stage where everyone is working on new records.  That’s the fun part of the cycle   It’s great,  you know, writing the songs, making demos, then you make a record, then you tour, then you have it under your belt and it gets released and then you tour that and then before you know it you start working on new songs again.  It’s a great thing.”

The All Stars also recently completed a series of shows as The Word, which features the three members augmented by John Medeski on organ and Robert Randolph on pedal steel.  The recent run of shows included New Years Eve in New York City and a slot on the recent Jam Cruise.

Another All Stars spin off, the South Memphis String Band, featuring Luther Dickinson, Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart, will release their first record on January 19, 2010.  This is a project that Luther is particularly excited about as well.  The South Memphis project came about from another side project, the New Moon Jellyroll Freedom Riders, which stemmed from a tour in which the All Stars backed Charlie Musselwhite and Mavis Staples.  Luther states “after that tour, Charlie came down to the studio and we recorded with Musselwhite, Jimbo, Alvin, the All Stars and my Dad. We did a handful of acoustic jug band songs in that session and that is how the South Memphis String Band was formed.  Jimbo and Alvin had never really played that much together and they had a great chemistry and thought “hey, let’s keep this going.”  It’s funny we had 2 songs on MySpace and one photograph and our agent booked a whole tour off of that.”  The trio toured briefly last year and will be doing additional dates this March and April behind the project.

Two additional records are in the can from the South Memphis String Band association as well, the aforementioned New Moon Jellyroll Freedom Riders, which record, which Dickinson describes as “just a hard core old fashioned blues record”, and Loose Shoes, which Luther calls “the South Memphis String Band’s garage band alter ego”, adding “That’s just too nasty for public consumption as of yet.” (laughs)

And so, with all of these side projects on the horizon and as the Black Crowes take an extended break for the first time in a while, the focus shifts back once again to what started this all…the North Mississippi All Stars.  The All Stars will reconvene for their first national tour in a year, the aptly named “Let It Roll” tour, which will take the band through 24 dates between January 27, 2010 and March 6, 2010, including 4 Colorado dates.

 Luther said the time away has only made the members of the All Stars appreciate it more.  “We all appreciate when we get to do this and that’s such a cool thing.  We toured for so much for so many years, to a fault where it eventually hurt us.  But the coolest thing is it’s like riding a bicycle.  We just get together and fall back into it.”

Luther also is quick to credit the long time fan base that allows the North Mississippi All Stars the luxury of “falling back into it.”   “God bless ‘em man”, he laughs.

Even with the onslaught of music and creativity coming from the All Stars members in 2009, the biggest event that occurred without question was the passing of Jim Dickinson, the father of Luther and Cody, legendary producer and icon of the North Mississippi and Memphis music communities for decades.

I spoke with Luther at length about his father, and asked him what the most important element that he taught Cody and him throughout their careers and also growing up in Mississippi.  Luther stated “he always said “play every note like it was your last, because one of them will be.  His last show was a super high profile gig playing with Elvis Costello and he had a blast.  He’ll always be with us man.”

I asked Luther about a quote I read from his father in the Swampland article in which he said “it came real easy for Cody. Luther went out and got everything he had. He worked for it and learned it. Cody, he’s still a natural on pretty much any instrument he puts in his hands. But the thing that sets Luther apart—I wish I could say I taught it to him—but Otha Turner taught it to him. You can teach a monkey to play the notes—believe me—many monkeys are out there playing, but feeling the note is something different and you have to learn—it doesn’t make sense—but you have to learn to feel what you play”  Luther agreed, stating “it’s true man.  Cody is definitely a natural.  I wasn’t a natural and had to work pretty hard for it, but my thing was that I knew exactly what I wanted to do.  And there between the two of us it all came together.”

I asked Luther to name his favorite projects his father ever worked on, either playing or producing, and he hesitated before stating “he had a rhythm section called the Dixie Flyers.  They were a 5 piece band and with Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd they made like 14 records or something like that.  I’ve been listening to all those and that is just the height of the southern rhythm section thing.  You know you had the Muscle Shoals guys and the whole Stax thing and that’s just how they made records.  You had these groups that didn’t necessarily tour but just worked with different artists in the studio.  Duane Allman was on the scene, he was running around playing on all these records in his spare time.  I’ve been listening to a lot of these records, the Sam the Sham record, Jerry Jeff Walker “Bein’ Free.”  There’s a great Ronnie Hawkins record.  There’s an Aretha Franklin record.  They were just a great band with a great bass player and a great guitar player, my Dad’s best friend, Charlie Freeman.  And that’s what I’ve been really getting into lately.”

While father Jim always was available for guidance, he often let Luther and Cody learn on their own.  “We were always talking and scheming, and at times we’d get into something that he didn’t understand or approve of.  He always told us what he thought, but he would always let us make our own mistakes or find our own way.”

In a fitting and unplanned tribute to their father, Luther arranged a collection of friends of their father at the families Zebra Ranch recording studio in the days following his death and recorded a series of gospel songs in his honor.  The subsequent record, “Sons of Mudboy” has been released by Memphis International records.  The name derives from a band that Jim Dickinson fronted and recorded with, Mudboy and the Neutrons.

 “Acoustic guitar has always been my first love, and I always knew that at a certain point I wanted to do an acoustic record.  While Dad was sick last summer I was working up a lot of gospel.  I booked this session to do a solo acoustic guitar gospel recording, and then Dad passed.  Dad’s ceremony was set for Tuesday and the session was booked for Wednesday, and it dawned on me at the ceremony that Dad didn’t want a funeral but he loved recording sessions, so why don’t I invite everyone to the session tomorrow?  So afterwards I called everybody and they just showed up the next day.  The first part of the afternoon I recorded 6 or 7 songs by myself and for the rest of the day we just took turns backing each other up and recorded these gospel songs. I wasn’t planning on making a record, I was just doing it.  And you know, it was a celebration of Dad’s life”

Luther also feels blessed to have received such a natural and deep music education from being around his father and the upbringing him and Cody received in North Mississippi.  Like Derek Trucks being around the Allman Brothers scene, Luther and Cody both have the musical environment they grew up with engrained in them.  Luther states, “yeah, we’re total products of our musical community.  It’s not just the North Mississippi community, it’s the Memphis community too…all my Dad’s friends, the bohemian guys that were with him at the folk festivals in the sixties.  We got to play with Fred Mcdowell, Furry Lewis, Bukka White and all those cats.  Those guys were our teachers and a lot of their children are musicians.  And you know there all those great rock and roll guys like Billy Lee Riley, Jerry Lee Lewis and his guitar player Roland James, and Willie Mitchell who just passed away.  It’s just crazy.  And Dad was always a big part of the Memphis music scene and they always embraced us and encouraged us.  And (being around all of these people) that just blew my mind.  I thought the blues was a thing of the past and then all of a sudden I was eye to eye with it.  I would open my eyes and there were these ridiculous juke joints and Otha Turner and R.L. Burnside and it was like “oh my God.”  It changed my life.

As the All Stars have now reformed, I asked Luther about the band’s future recording plans.  Luther said “I have been writing music for the next All Stars release and have a pretty cool production concept I’m working on for it too.  I’ve got kind of a new direction I’m working on and I’ve got a lot of music and want to be real selective about it.  If it comes together like I see it, it’s going to be real interesting.”

The All Stars’ last studio release, 2008’s “Hernando”, was a real return to the band’s stripped down 3-piece blues roots, but also showcases the bands unrelenting willingness to incorporate a huge variety of other influences to the bands sound, from hip hop to ZZ Top.

Luther also spoke glowingly about the band’s live career retrospective released early in 2009, “Do It like We Used To.”  “It took me 3 years to put that son of a bitch together and I’m real proud of it. It’s my favorite thing we have ever done.”  The band has also begun releasing selective live shows in their entirety for download only from the band’s website.

Luther also had high praise for the Colorado music scene.  “I wish we could play more Colorado shows.  It’s the one place we play where we could play a week or more if we wanted.  The people out there are always a great crowd and love to go out and party and have a good time.  It’s a great scene.  We actually just released a live show from the Fox in Boulder (“Boulderado”, available for download on the band’s site.)  We’ve got a lot of great friends there and have had some of our best times in Colorado.  I love it.”

With all of the change that has gone on within the All Stars camp, I asked Luther how his relationship with Cody has changed over the years.  Luther stated “it’s funny because we are totally opposites on like aesthetics and production and things like that.  Cody is completely modern and loves pop music and rap music and modern production and I just get more and more old fashioned- and backwards. (laughs)  I think we complement each other well.  The only difference is we don’t live together anymore.   Sometimes we would just stay up all night and talk things through and hash it out, and we still do that on the phone or on the road.  And you know it’s funny, we don’t get to be together as much and play together as much, but in a way I think that now that we’re grown and we’re all doing all these separate things, it’s a different type of power where we’re both out doing different things at the same time.  We’re never as strong as we were when we we’re together, but we’re still out there spreading the world boogie.”

So as the widening net of influence and music is being cast by the members of the North Mississippi All Stars, Luther and Cody Dickinson have certainly cemented their stature in the music community as some of the most talented, prolific and hardest working musicians on the circuit.  Their imminent tour will bring them to Colorado for 4 shows, including opening for Gov’t Mule at the Fillmore in Denver on Saturday, February 13.   You can be certain they will be “spreading the world boogie.”

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