Electric Mud

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

When reminded of a desultory 1993 New Year's Eve double bill with popular Memphis funk ensemble Big Ass Truck, Luther growls, "Oh, dude, that was the worst ever. That was terrible, man. That was paying some fucking dues there."

Luther grew particularly frustrated with DDT because the band didn't satisfy his growing fascination with the traditional country-blues records he was listening to, or the propulsive one-chord boogie of the hill-country blues blasting from Kimbrough's juke joint.

"I got to the point where I was sick of playing and I couldn't write anything for the band anymore. Personally, all I was playing was just a lot of Fred McDowell at the time. So I was like, 'Fuck it.'"

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

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Luther's solution was to launch the North Mississippi Allstars with the same lineup as DDT, and maintain both bands at the same time. But if the Allstars were initially a rootsy side project, they eventually supplanted DDT. When the Dickinsons' childhood friend Chris Chew joined the band on bass, he not only brought a new sense of kinship to the proceedings, but also added his black-gospel roots to the mix.

After recording a still-unreleased album's worth of traditional songs in 1998, the group exploded on the contemporary blues scene with the powerhouse 2000 debut Shake Hands With Shorty. Delivering their own high-octane versions of hill-country standards by Burnside, Kimbrough and McDowell, they sounded like the fulfillment of everything their dad had attempted to do decades earlier with his teenage band, the Regents.

The album also established Luther as a contender for the brass ring among new-millennium guitar heroes. An astonishingly fluid player with the melodic grace of a Duane Allman, he also can drive the band with the funky spareness of a Steve Cropper. You can tell he's absorbed the lessons of countless Mississippi bluesmen, but his great accomplishment is that he never sounds like he's imitating any of them.

With the recently released sophomore album, 51 Phantom, the trio cavalierly threw blues purists a curve ball, with a swampy, hard-rocking set dominated by their own originals. Never a slave to any genre, they leap from the gospel lilt of "Ship" to the ZZ Top-inspired boogie of "Snakes in My Bushes" to an almost Rage Against the Machine-like intensity with the album closer "Mud" (featuring Cody's mantra of regional pride: "I'm in the mud, and the mud's in me"). The new album also marks the first time that they've been produced by their dad.

As a producer, Jim Dickinson has been known for his commitment to capturing the moment, flaws be damned. On 51 Phantom, he pushed the Allstars to go with raw first-take performances that they would have probably shied away from if left to their own devices. One extreme example, the track for the song "Ship," was actually the first time the band had ever played the tune. Luther winds up slipping into an uncharacteristically clumsy cluster of notes on the final solo, but the effect is refreshingly loose.

"With the first record, we had the material down, 'cause we had been touring for two years without making a CD," Luther says. "So we knew exactly what we were gonna put down on that one. But with this one, we didn't know. We had the songs, but we just basically put it all together with [Jim] in the studio.

"This one is the live-est thing we've ever done. Almost all of it is us playing live, and most of it is the first take. The only thing we would do is play the song longer, and edit it down a bit, tighten the arrangements. He would say, 'This is good, let's work with this.'"

If 51 Phantomwas the first time Papa Jim helmed one of his sons' projects, it was hardly the first time Luther got to see his dad at work in the studio. When Luther was only 13, Jim brought him into Memphis' famed Ardent recording studio to lay down a guitar solo on the Replacements' "Shooting Dirty Pool." Using Luther and Paul Westerberg to flesh out a scenario running around in his head about two guys engaged in a fight, Jim (an erstwhile drama student forever conjuring mind movies in the studio) got them to make chaotic guitar squalls that answered and competed with each other.

Luther's proudest memory of the session was not his guitar work, but the lyric that he inspired Westerberg to write.

"You know that line: 'You're the coolest guy/I ever have smelled'?" Luther asks with his patented laugh. "Well, I was just a dumb-ass 13-year-old kid, but I had worn this silk shirt, and, well, it was kinda dirty. And that's what that line was about."

Taking a page from their dad's history with the Dixie Flyers, Luther and Cody have also enthusiastically assumed the role of backing musicians on a gospel-tinged side project called The Word, with John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin & Wood) and steel virtuoso Robert Randolph. They even manage to squeeze the occasional Word gig into their touring schedule, operating without rehearsal, just as they do with the Allstars. In fact, Luther says that he and Cody have never had a real rehearsal in all their years of working together. When you're gigging, recording and jamming with friends and neighbors all the time, rehearsal becomes kinda superfluous.

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