Electric Mud

The North Mississippi Allstars are young guys passing on an old tradition

Even if you get along with your parents, you hardly qualify as a red-blooded American teenager unless you make two crucial musical decisions early on: First, you defiantly reject the old folks' listening tastes as passé, and second, you find music of your own that's guaranteed to piss them off -- and maybe even scare them a bit.

But for Luther and Cody Dickinson, guitarist and drummer, respectively, for the North Mississippi Allstars, rebelling against their parents was a little thornier than for most of us. After all, their dad, Jim Dickinson, has spent a lifetime building an impeccably hip résumé. As a Southern teenager in the late '50s, he was a white kid playing the blues, years before British invaders like the Rolling Stones and Animals had even considered the possibility. A decade later, he played piano on the Stones' "Wild Horses" and backed up Aretha Franklin with his Atlantic Records session band, the Dixie Flyers. As a producer, he manned the console for Big Star's legendary third album, Alex Chilton's Like Flies on Sherbert, Ry Cooder's '80s movie scores, and the Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me.

Considering that both Luther, 28, and Cody, 26, have followed their dad's example by adapting the blues to their own idiosyncratic style, you'd imagine that all was harmonious around the Dickinson stereo when they were growing up. But you'd be wrong. A lifelong believer in the power of rhythm, Papa Dickinson couldn't find a groove in Luther's beloved hard-core-punk collection, and he was flabbergasted by Cody's sweet tooth for the most obvious brand of Top 40 pop.

North Mississippi Allstars: Maverick children of the blues revolution.
North Mississippi Allstars: Maverick children of the blues revolution.

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"The funny thing was, from either end of the spectrum -- from my punk rock to the intense pop music that Cody was listening to -- my dad would say, 'I can't believe you all found both types of music that I can't stand,'" Luther recalls, with his conspiratorial stoner's cackle. "But on the other hand, he figured that proves the strength of rock 'n' roll, that you can still make music that your parents won't like.

"But on the other hand, I was always really into his record collection, for one thing. I grew up digging through that thing. A lot of blues, rock 'n' roll, jazz, soundtracks. His tastes are very eclectic."

The flip side to the South's well-documented history of racial oppression, the Dickinsons were a white family in the rural Mississippi hill country who hung out with their black neighbors, and drew creative inspiration from them.

For years, Luther's best friend in the hill country has been Otha Turner, a 92-year-old secret legend: a master of the peculiarly mid-South, early 20th century genre known as fife-and-drum music. Both a confidant and musical mentor, Turner has helped Luther understand his Mississippi roots, and how to apply them to his own music (Turner even plays some fife on the new Allstars record). It's almost more than Martin Luther King Jr. could have imagined on his most idealistic days: a longhaired, twentysomething white kid bonding with a ninetysomething African American on the muddy fields of Tate County, Mississippi.

"He's a treasure from times past, and a great wealth of knowledge," Luther says of Turner. "He's watched the whole world change. He still farms by hand, has a huge herd of all kinds of animals, he milks his own cow every day, and drinks the milk. He's a connoisseur of moonshine and women and throws the best parties you ever want to go to. He's a master, master musician. He's more than a musician. He's like an elder or a chieftain.

"The thing is, back in the day, when you'd go to Junior Kimbrough's juke joint, and he and R.L. [Burnside] were there, they were totally men of their community. They were not above anybody in any way, but their place in the community was such a special thing. I've never seen anything like it, the way people loved them. But those guys have been rocking for decades."

When Luther began hanging out at the now-deceased Kimbrough's Holly Springs juke joint around 1993, he was desperately searching for something that would restore his enthusiasm for music. Though not yet 20, he and his younger brother were already veterans of the nearby Memphis music scene. Both brothers had started on the guitar as tots, but Cody switched to drums at the age of 10, and, as Luther says with a laugh, "ever since then we've been rocking out."

Such rocking out included playing at hedonistic house parties for their high school friends, where Luther cryptically recalls that they'd "fuck stuff up."

Their first serious venture was DDT, a power trio which is generally described in print as a raucous punk band, but was really a failed, and somewhat confused, heavy-metal excursion.

Even as baby-faced teenagers, there was no denying that Luther and Cody were loaded with technical expertise, and they played together with that strange telepathic empathy that can only come from a lifetime of responding to each other's moves. But weak songwriting and indifferent singing kept the band from becoming anything more than a regional curiosity.

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