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Luther Dickinson On 25 Years And Two Allstars Albums

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Joshua Black Wilkins
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Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars has been inclined over the years to write his band’s mission and his way of life into his lyrics in a direct way. But he’s rarely been as specific or introspective as on the final track of the band’s new album Set Sail, entitled “Authentic.”

The old school guitar players took me under their wing

Stompin' feet on front porches all night, we'd play and sing

Now I'm nearly as old as the old timers were then

Time to befriend the young players and do it again

Fully embracing that cycle of intergenerational mentorship has been one of the Allstars’ most effective tools over its 25 years, possibly as influential and motivating as brother Cody Dickinson’s greasy, booty-shaking beats. There are a handful of regionally rooted neo-traditional bands in Americana (Los Lobos in the veteran category and Ranky Tanky from more recent years come to mind), but there’s been nothing like the Allstars, for they may have singularly saved Hill Country Blues from extinction.

“I'm 49 now, you know? So I'm accumulating young musicians to bring up and teach like the elders taught me, when RL (Burnside) took me on the road in ‘97 and showed me the ropes,” says Dickinson in Episode 199 of The String. He says blues in North Mississippi, which had been largely maintained by family lineages such as the Burnsides and Kimbroughs, is in good shape even after the patriarchs he knew have passed on. “One year I came back from the road, and there was a whole community of teenage dudes - some of them from my hometown of Hernando - hanging out with Gary Burnside, RL Burnside, Dave Kimbrough, Junior Kimbrough, and RL’s sons. I was like, oh my god, there's a whole new crop of young players on the scene.”

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Dickinson, the son of famed Memphic blues and rock and roll producer Jim Dickinson, tells much of this story in detailed liner notes to the 2019 NMA release Up And Rolling, a set of new recordings that acted like a review of the band’s origins and influences. That’s because those notes were wrapped around a set of photos from 1996, beautifully reproduced in the CD booklet, by Wyatt McSpadden.

“It was just months before we formed the band,” Luther says. “And the music was so strong and the community was so fun and fulfilling. Wyatt came to town to document the Mississippi music scene. So we took him around on what ended up being, in retrospect, a perfect Sunday. We took him to Othar Turner's farm, and then to Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint, and everyone was totally on point.” Othar Turner, in case it’s filling in a gap, was an amazing man and musician who was born in 1907 and who carried on the centuries-old tradition of Black fife and drum music, sweet woody riffs over parade rhythms that undergird the Allstars sound to this day. Turner’s granddaughter Shardé Thomas, embraced that reedy fife sound as her own; she plays on Up And Rolling as well and is pursuing her own varied musical career in her early 30s.

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But this episode is a tale of two albums, because the prolific Allstars released the new Set Sail in recent weeks (digitally anyway, the vinyl and CD arrive April 1). Produced during the pandemic, it’s the first Allstars album to be recorded in layers with musicians adding parts in different studios instead of as ensemble performances. That led to some new sonic and musical territory, with horns and strings and a light coat of modern ambience over the powerful beats and themes.

“We were just following the songs,” Luther says “You know, luckily, we were all like minded. I would start with the drum machine and my acoustic guitar and the lyrics and build some keyboards and electric guitars and send them to Cody. And, and luckily, he was feeling it. We haven't had the time to experiment and craft an album since our first one Shake Hands With Shorty (in 2000). Because we've been on the run ever since.”

Also rounding out a refreshed sound is the voice of Lamar Williams Jr, son of early Allman Brothers bass player Lamar Williams. “I never had such a like minded singing partner,” Luther tells me. He got inspired to invite him into the Allstars fold after seeing Williams step up in a pinch to sing with Charlie Starr of Blackberry Smoke at a Gregg Allman birthday show, when Parr had a failing voice. “It was just such a beautiful human moment, just very kind,” remembers Luther. “And I was like, man, I want to work with that dude. That's my type of cat. So Lamar sat in with us in Atlanta at our last show before quarantine. And then as we recorded songs, I would just send them to him.”

The result is a different kind of vibe than brother harmony or a lead vocal with a support singer. Williams sings unison here, harmony there, sometimes call and response, elevating what is probably the finest songwriting Dickinson has committed to an Allstars album. And while Williams is not able to be part of every gig, he’s fully part of the Allstar collective and audiences will see him singing these songs on the road regularly. It’s all part of growing the family and passing on the message of Southern roots music.

And from Set Sail, "Never Want To Be Kissed" sung by guest vocalist William Bell.

North Mississippi Allstars (featuring William Bell) - "Never Want To Be Kissed" [Official Video]

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.