Primitive Modernists: Luther Dickinson and the North Mississippi Allstars
Primitive modernism is the phrase that Jim Dickinson uses to characterize the music of the North Mississippi Allstars. This description proves quite apt as the band refracts the sounds of its native hill country through contemporary musical idioms, techniques and gear. The exuberant results can be found on 51 Phantom the trio’s sophomore release which Dickinson produced. 51 Phantom builds on the ideas of Shake Hands With Shorty yet casts them into a new context as while the former release focussed on interpreting others artists’ music, this disc presents the band’s original material. Incidentally, Dickinson’s intimate connection to the music extends beyond the mixing board, as the legendary pianist and producer is also the father of guitarist Luther and his younger brother drummer Cody.
In speaking with Luther Dickinson it is quite clear that he embraces and embodies the multiple worlds evoked by the term primitive modernism. He grew up in juke joints and went on to produce Othar Turner’s Everybody Hollerin’ Goat, a release that captured Turner’s fife and drum music at his Tate County, Mississippi farm. Yet as a teenager Luther also was drawn to the music of SST bands and currently counts himself a Spiritualized fan as well as a devotee of urban radio.
The following conversation bounds through these topics, as well as regional musical variances, side projects, and Mr. Rogers even makes a guest appearance. The Allstars near-perpetual tour continues in December and January (broken up in part by some gigs with John Mesdeki and Robert Randolph as the Word). A full tour itinerary and the latest NMAS news is available at www.nmsallstars.com.
DB- Your band’s name and its style references a particular region of the country. I’d like to hear to what extent do you think pockets of musical regionalism still thrive in the United States.
LD- If you want to talk about MTV music there’s none. I don’t know where those guys are from but they all sound alike. But I’ll tell you where regionalism is still super strong and at the forefront is hip-hop. You have east coast/west coast, you have the dirty south and even in the dirty south Memphis rap is completely different from Atlanta rap from the ATL which is completely different from Louisiana rap. I listen to a lot of r&b radio especially at home where there’s a lot of good stations. So I see regionalism in rap music but not in rock music.
DB- What about variations within the blues? You grew up hearing music in juke joints.
LD- The main juke joint I grew up gong to was Junior Kimbrough’s on highway 4 and it’s gone. Junior died and they kept it going for a few years and then it burned down. Nothing’s been able to take its place. Junior’s was a beautiful place and the real wonderful part about where we live is the interracial mingling. Junior’s, during the time I was there, was full of older people, the local community who grew up listening to him, the real patrons of the juke joint. Then you’d have young musicians like us but the best thing was you’d have these 18, 19 year old girls from Ole Miss, the college down in Oxford, Mississippi. They were too young to get into bars but they’d be at Junior’s dancing with the old guys. That was a beautiful, beautiful thing. It was just harmony.
But now Junior’s is gone. We’re going to play a blues joint in Clarksdale this weekend and that’s going to be fun but besides that there’s only Othar Turner’s picnic that he has once a year. That is a great, great thing and part of that is just like the old days I would imagine. There’s definitely more white folks but that’s Othar’s whole trip, everybody’s invited- bring your kids, it’s going to be a respectful party and that’s part of his whole vision of life.
DB- How did you meet Othar?
LD- The first time I was ever exposed to him was when I really young. My dad and I used to watch Mr. Rogers and he and Jessie Mae Hemphill did a segment on the show. They played and my dad said, “That’s Othar Turner, he lives down the street.” So I’ve always been aware of him since I was a little kid. Then there was this festival in Memphis that we grew up playing, we’d play every year with my father when we were young kids. Othar and his family would also play and that’s how I got to know him.
DB- Were you blown away that your neighbor appeared on Mr. Rogers?
LD-Well I was young. I’m not sure I could fully appreciate it beyond the fact that he was our neighbor and he made music.
DB- How did you come to produce Everybody Hollerin’ Goat [the first Othar Turner release]?
LD- It was recorded over a long period of time and parts of it really document our friendship growing and blossoming. The stuff where it’s us sitting on the porch and R.L. Boyce and I are singing, that was really a special time.
DB- Did you intend to produce a disc from the start?
LD- Well I had this little high-8 video camera and I would always just take it down there. In the back of my mind I was thinking about some kind of project but what I was doing was unusable except for the audio. About a third of the record was recorded on that video camera over the years. Then it got to a certain point where we took some real equipment down there and recorded the majority of it outside, at his farm.
DB- Were you surprised by the critical acclaim [Rolling Stone named it one of the five essential blues releases of the 90’s]?
LD- It’s always a pleasant surprise and reassuring when something is responded to well. But Othar at the time was almost 90 and he hadn’t put out a record yet. He deserved a record. He was working towards it his whole life, so he was worthy of it.
DB- Let’s move to your own music which references the sounds of your home terrain even in the band’s name. I’m curious though, what led you to focus your initial disc on cover songs?
LD- We’d been doing shows for two a half a years and we’d been on the road for a year. We had all this material worked up, regional songs from around the area. We really started out playing a lot of Fred McDowell and over the years we picked up R.L. Burnside and then we became more interested in Junior Kimbrough’s music. There was just a lot of hill country music we were playing every night and with Shorty our main aspiration was to record the music we play every night and make a record of what we are. Part of that was to take a traditional song but play it crazy- put a hip-hop beat to it or put a breakdown in there or a heavy metal guitar, just anything from any of our influences.
We had songs back then and a few of the songs on the second record we could have put on the first like “Up Over Yonder” and “Storm.” We didn’t think about it on Shake Hands with Shorty because we had a ton of material from the hill country we were playing. We were trying to whittle that down, we just wanted to show what our roots were and what we were about as a band with the idea that we would move ahead in the future.
On 51 Phantom we wanted to write our own songs in the vein of the hill county. Even a song like “Snakes In My Bushes” which is a pretty hard rocking song, if you take it down to an acoustic guitar is a combination of Fred McDowell and Junior Kimbrough. It’s just the production we use and our style makes it sound more modern.
DB- Given that, how do you respond when people characterize your music as blues?
LD- I think people have to put it into a category so they can put it away in their brain but it doesn’t matter to me. The category I’m most comfortable with is we’re a rock and roll band. I never claimed to be a blues band. Even with Shake Hands with Shorty we weren’t doing traditional blues music. Over the past twenty years there have been people who liked to do old style s of blues to keep that alive but that’s not really what I’m into. Sometimes people ask me if we did a particular song to makes the hardcore blues people happy and I say, “Hell no, we do what we want to do.” That’s our motto, we do what we want to do when we want to do it.”
DB- That approach and the word hardcore you just mentioned, reminds me, you used to have a hardcore band right?
LD- We had a loud, youthful band. When I was twelve to fifteen, Black Flag was my favorite band and that whole SST scene. But I was also digging Hendrix and later I got into the Allman Brothers.
DB- So I would imagine it must have been pretty cool as a teenager to play on a Replacements album [Pleased To Meet Me].
LD- That was great man. They were recording in Memphis and my dad was producing it. This was back in the 80’s and they wanted this one song, “Shooting Dirty Pool,” to have comical, timely heavy metal licks- some whammy bar and finger tapping, So dad told them about me and they invited me up there it was pretty fun.
DB- When you were growing up did you watch your father work quite a bit?
LD- He wouldn’t take us to work all the time but sometimes he’d take a tape home and we’d listen . In the 80’s he did a lot of movie music for Ry Cooder and he would be gone for a month at a time. Then he’d come home and we’d listen to the tape and he’d tell us about the movie and we’d go see it a couple months later. What really was an inspiration to us was my father had a band in Memphis called Mud Boy and the Neutrons and as young kids we go see them play all the time and that was so much fun.
DB- Was it odd having him in there producing the disc?
LD- It was great. Of course we’d worked together a lot in the past, and we’ve been through the rebellious stage and the learning stage. Our philosophy was we did the first one ourselves so we did the second for him and whatever he wanted we would try. We were real easy going and it went well. It helps having a good producer because you can just worry about getting your songs together and performances and not be so worried about the finished product. You don’t have to concern yourself with how this is going to fit or how are we going to finish this or that take wasn’t good enough because he all that covered. He brought a lot out of us. We were willing to try whatever we wanted to do and it went smooth . At one point Cody was worried it would be too mellow but I think he saw there were enough rock songs on there.
DB- Agreed. Which of the songs on the album really stands out for you?
LD- I like “Snakes In My Bushes” a lot because I think it sounds real modern and rocking and loud but I like the ballads too. What’s been fun lately is playing those songs live, working them into the live set because some of those songs are so new we hadn’t played them live. “51 Phantom” seems to be a good dance song, it’s up tempo and everybody’s boogying. But “Circle in the Sky” is slow and nasty and that has a real cool effect on the crowd.
DB- The title track references an actual highway near your home?
LD- Highway 51 is the one we grew up on that runs through the hill country north and south. We grew up running up and down that highway and that song is really about living on the road which is definitely what we’ve been doing (laughs).
DB- Along those lines, how do you structure your live sets?
LD- The only decision we ever make is what we’re going to play first. Occasionally Cody will feel something and he’ll kick it but usually I’m just kind of planning ahead and feeling what’s going to go next . Of course we have songs that connect to one another. Pretty much we still play everything very night, nearly all of Shake Hands with Shorty and all of the new record. Sometimes we don’t do the ballads because we’ve been rocking so hard and people are dancing and you don’t want to break the energy.
DB- You mention dancing. Is that your preferred manner of audience expression?
LD- Oh no, we don’t discriminate. R.L. Burnside says, “Blues ain’t nothing but dance music,” and that’s really what we have taken from it. We just try to put a positive energy out and have a good time. Our music is not very melodramatic or anything. But we’ll let everyone do with it what they will.
DB- I’ve seen your music described as primitive modernism, what do you think of that?
LD- I like that a lot. My dad came up with that phrase the first time I ever heard it. To me that totally sums up the hill country blues experience. The delta blues, the Chicago blues, the Memphis blues, those things are long gone, they’re things of the past but R.L. Burnside is still down there. He’s doing a show tomorrow night in Oxford, Mississippi. In his band he’s 75, Kenny Brown is like 45 and Cedric [Burnside, R.L.’s grandson] is 24. Cedric will look you in the eye and tell you he’s a blues man and then he’ll bust out a freestyle rap or some Stevie Wonder and I just think there’s a vibrant community of musicians in Mississippi. And hill country blues is primitive , some of it is more primitive than delta blues ever was. Robert Johnson was an extremely sophisticated musician but R.L. Burnside takes everything down and Fred McDowell would take all the chord changes out. That’s also why a record like Come On In [by R.L. Burnside] was able to be made where there’s a combination between trance/electronica kind of music and this style of blues.
DB- Let’s move on and talk about the Word which is touring the west coast in January.
LD- Yeah its gonna be great
DB- What do you think you learned from that first run of shows that you can bring to bear this time out?
LD- [laughs] I’m not sure because it’s pretty loose arrangement-wise. Even when we did the record we just got together, learned a song and played it. We didn’t even count it off, we just played it and we’re lucky the engineer recorded it.
DB- Your fellow Wordmate Robert Randolph has had quite a year.
LD- I love Robert. I think he’s great and he really has had a hell of a year. The first time we met was at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City and we invited him to open up for us. I think he’d played one bar before that but this was a full-on packed theater crowd. I hope we didn’t ruin his life [laughs]. Ever since then we’ve had the same booking agent, he’s out on the road and he loves it. It’s been great to watch him over this year and I think he’s a wonderful talent and a good friend of mine
DB- It must be pretty entertaining for you to introduce music to him. He hadn’t heard Hendrix, right?
LD- Yeah, exactly. He knew nothing about secular music. He just recently got turned on to James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and it goes on and on. He learned “Voodoo Child” from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s version. So yeah, it’s cool. It’s really a lot of fun, like Hendrix. I love turning him on to Hendrix because he’s still the master.
DB- And the following month you’ll be out with JoJo Hermann.
LD- We help him do his solo stuff because Panic writes as a unit. It’s not the type of band where he just brings a song in. So we made one record and we recorded a second record and it’s even better than the first. So yeah, we’re going to do a tour in February and that’s going to be fun.
DB- Were you a Beanland fan growing up?
LD- I was a huge Beanland fan and that was just right at the period of time when I was starting to get out and party. They’re my personal psychedelic southern rock band. They were hugely influential and George Mcconell is a great, great guitar player.
DB- Well it must be satisfying performing and recording with some of that group’s members.
LD- Yeah, it’s been so nice. All the projects we do kind of stem from friendships. Like The Word, we got to know John back in 98 and we always wanted to do a project together and it finally happened. JoJo we’ve known for a long time and he finally called us. Actually the first time we worked with him about three or four years ago, we did some demos down at Fat Possum of some songs he had written and one of them was “Dyin’ Man,” which later turned up on the Panic record totally different, same lyrics.
DB- Since this is the end of the year listmaking season, I’d like to hear some of your favorite releases from 2001.
LD- I don’t listen to all that much contemporary music but I’ll tell you a band that I really like is the English band Spiritualized. The latest record is a great record, real orchestral. It’s kind of like a Phil Spector or Brian Wilson-type record and I really like that a lot. I enjoy the live Radiohead which came out recently and the live Galactic. Robert put out a CD that I like We’re all still waiting on Oasis’ next record, we’re big fans of theirs. I haven’t heard the Deep End yet, Gov’t Mule’s record but I’m looking forward to that. Man, this year I’ve been listening to a lot of New Orleans music. I grew up on Dr John but a lot of Earl King and the Meters. I’ve been doing some gigs on the side with George Porter and Johnny Vidacovich. Johnny is an older, cool cat from New Orleans. He’s Stanton’s friend and teacher. Man, playing with those guys is fun.
DB- What sort of stuff do you play?
LD- We just kind of make it up. We’ll play a couple of songs, every once in a while we’ll throw in a song here or there but pretty much it’s improvising for two sets. It really is a lot of fun. As much as the Memphis legacy and the hill country has such a great community of musicians, there’s a wonderful community of musicians down there too. Every region has its own traditions, styles, tunes and legends. I was very happy they invited me to come down and play.
DB- Some people might be surprised that a few of the picks you named were from quintessential British pop bands.
LD- Some of them I grew up listening to, lost interest in and then got back into. That was definitely the case with Oasis. But Radiohead and Spiritualized, I’ve been a fan of theirs throughout. The people over there are real ambitious when it comes to production and what they’re trying to do and it’s definitely fun to keep up with it. I might have grown up listening to Spiritualized but I was also listening to Howlin’ Wolf and Rage Against the Machine at the same time as James Brown and John Coltrane. I think that all of it eventually finds its way into our own music.