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Published: 2000/05/15
by Chip Schramm

North Mississippi All-Stars: The New, New Brothers of Blues

The aptly named North Mississippi All-Stars are based around the drums and slide guitar sound of brothers Cody and Luther Dickinson (see the South region section from the month of October ’99 for more background and an interview with Luther.) The NMAS are like a musical amoeba, expanding to include many other musicians form their home state at various times, then contracting back down to the basic sounds and rhythms that define the North Mississippi hill country’s blues and rock tradition. The mainstream media has begun to catch on to the All-Stars, and the first point of reference is always their father, Jim. Jim Dickinson is an icon of the worldwide music community, producing and/or playing with such legends at Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan, and Duane Allman, just to name three. To dismiss the bloodkinship of the Dickinson clan as incidental to the success of the NMAS would be foolish. However, only after speaking with the band and listening to the music they create, both live and in the studio, it becomes obvious that their attitudes about life and living are what make their music so soulful and sincere.

In addition to the Dickinson brothers, the North Mississippi All-Stars feature Chris Chew, a childhood friend of Luther’s on bass. With a gospel music background and a day job working as a truck driver, Chew epitomizes the hard working man of blues lore. As the popularity of the All-Stars has continued to grow, Chew has taken to the road more often, even missing an occasional Sunday service at his church in Holly Springs. There is no doubt that the roots of the NMAS and their material are derived from the blues tradition, but their stage presence lends itself perfectly to the jamband scene. They never shy away from sharing the spotlight with other musicians, from Warren Haynes and Allen Woody of Gov’t Mule, to Chris Wood of Medeski, Martin and Wood and Jojo Hermann of Widespread Panic. The have included fellow Mississippi native Patrick Smith on keyboard during one tour and also consider Gary Burnside a permanent All-Star. Theirs is an unselfish tradition, borrowing from the past and melding their own unique style around blues standards without compromising their roots or creative drive in the process.

Listening to the North Mississippi All-Stars play for the first time is like tasting an original dish from a famous chef. You can identify the various ingredients that make up the meal, but can’t quite put a finger on what it is that makes them so special. Both live and in the studio, the NMAS incorporate influences from at least a dozen blues and rock legends, from Fred McDowell to R.L. Burnside to Jerry Garcia to Duane Allman and back again. Perhaps the greatest part of their father’s influence comes from their production work in the studio. At the ages of 23 and 26 respectively, Cody and Luther have already recorded and produced their first album almost entirely by themselves. Luther even produced the first and only album of living legend Otha Turner, one of the original purveyors of the drum and fife tradition. A review and analysis of “Shake Hands With Shorty,” the All-Stars new album, appears in the CD review section this month. I had the opportunity to chat with the All-Stars again right after their Spring tour ended. Excerpts from my conversation with Cody Dickinson follow.

Shake ‘Em On Down is the first song on your new album. I borrowed an album from a buddy of mine down the street, R.L. Burnside’s “Too Bad Jim,” and I noticed that that is the first track on his album, too!

CD: Is it really?

Yeah, I know you guys share a lot of influence, and you have Gary and Cedric Burnside playing on your album, too. You have 11 special guests on Shake Hands With Shorty. Where exactly does their influence come in?

CD: Well, on “Shake ‘Em On Down,” we kind of electrify the Mississippi Fred McDowell version. Of course, hearing R.L. do it is great, they do it a bit differently. We totally redo his Goin’ Down South and we’ve learned a lot of stuff from R.L. I tell you, jamming with Cedric and Gary is great because I grew up around these guys, and Cedric has done so much touring that he’s a total pro. We get together and just have a good old time, drumming and stuff. Lately, Gary Burnside has been touring with us playing second guitar and that’s been great.

  • saw that somewhere you have said that he’s a full time All-Star. Is that from here on or just for the time being?*

CD: Yeah, we’re going to do a lot of stuff with him on the next record. He’s learned all the material that we do live. He went out with us on this last Galactic tour. We’ve been having a great time with those guys. It’s awesome. They have a new record coming out, too. It’s great. They’ve been killing live. We’ve been hanging out a lot and I told them that they gave us our first real taste of the big-time shows. They do big shows, man. The last show we did with them was in Chicago. It was the second time that both our bands had played that town. We didn’t know how many people were gonna come, but it ended up selling out at like 1,600 people. It was a huge show.

C: Cedric and Gary play drums and bass respectively, what is their relation?

CD: Gary is R.L.‘s youngest son and Cedric’s uncle. Cedric is R.L.‘s grandson. Gary plays some bass on the record on Goin’ Down South and All Night Long. But live, Chris Chew plays bass and Gary plays second guitar. Sometimes he and I swap up and I play guitar and he plays drums. Gary’s great. He writes songs. He has Tyrone Davis-type R&B originals and he also has blues like Delta blues and Hill-Country blues originals.

I read in the liner notes of Too Bad Jim that Fred McDowell actually taught R.L. how to play guitar. You guys are kind of following the progression in that line. I know that in the New York Times once they labeled you guys as “carrying on the Fred McDowell Legacy” or something like that. Do you ever feel like that puts too much pressure on you?

CD: Well, what’s cool about that is that ultimately we’re just a rock-and-roll band. The shows we do, to me, because the music is so traditional and the songs are so old, have an interesting twist. I think it’s great. It’s not really a burden that we’re spreading the tradition. It’s great because all these kids that we’re doing these shows for are hearing these songs that they might never hear if we weren’t out there playing them. Plus whenever we go a long way away, (we’re about to go to Europe for a month,) it gives us a sound of our own, or at least we share with people where we’re from. That’s what it’s all about.

C: I know Patrick Smith has played keyboard with you sometimes on the road. Are y’all members of the Mississippi musicians union or what?

CD: Well, the whole concept of the All-Stars was to have a group of people playing together. It was Luther’s concept of playing the Fred McDowell songs onstage. He was listening to “Crazy ‘Bout You” and just had that idea one day down in Water Valley, Mississippi. The main cities that the All-Stars started to boom in first were Oxford, Mississippi, Memphis, and Vicksburg. For some reason, we hit it in Vicksburg before Jackson even. We met Patrick through Wes Perriman who runs the biscuit company down there. They’re good friends and Patrick plays there all the time. We had him sit in on keys and I thought he was just amazing. We even took him on one Galactic tour. He’s so busy with his own band [see the South Region section from March for more on that] but it’s been great knowing him and jamming with him.

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