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.

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.'"

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.

But for now, the band is conceptualizing album number three, a project that Luther's convinced will confuse the band's newfound rock fans as much as 51 Phantomstartled their traditional blues base.

"By the time we get to the studio, we're already gonna have it laid out," he says. "It's gonna be fucking great. Cody's writing some songs that are really gonna take it to a new level. It's gonna be rock, pop-rock arena shit. It's gonna be really bad-ass. And I'm playing some shit that's gonna be hard-core; it's gonna be a strange collection of traditional songs all put together in a way that it all makes sense as one big piece. It's gonna be out there. The blues guys won't like it; the rock people won't like it."

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