Distilling an Electric Blue Watermelon: Luther Dickinsons Southern Hill Country Gospel
The North Mississippi Allstars are maintaining their steady pace. Just after completing a tour serving as John Hiatt’s backing band (they also functioned in this capacity for his recent Master of Disaster release) they are reading themselves for a cross-country stint in support of their new release Electric Blue Watermelon. The group is also back down to a trio following the departure of guitarist Duwayne Burnside. All of these topics served as the backdrop for a series of questions suggested by our readers for guitarist Luther Dickinson.
To provide context, this interview was conducted just prior to Hurricane Katrina as well as the passing of R.L. Burnside.
Let’s start out by talking about the John Hiatt tour that you just completed. Was there any one song that you enjoyed playing above all others? (Question submitted by Steve Rodgers)
LD- We didn’t play it very often but definitely my favorite song was “Lipstick Sunset.” It was a religious moment because it’s just very moving and beautiful with that California blues vibe to it. I can remember when I was a little kid first hearing Ry Cooder play guitar on it.
We only played it four or five times but it was always exciting for me. Of course just working with Hiatt was a highlight. We rehearsed for two and a half weeks and he taught us the songs by hand and there’s just no substitution for that, especially the way we grew up learning from older musicians. Then we toured for six weeks so it was like two solid months and he never once threw away a vocal. He may go into a character and goof around but even then every note is spot on. He’s just such an amazing vocal talent so it really was a pleasure
Did you suggest any songs to John that you guys ended up playing? (Question by Len Tarett)
LD- Oh yeah, definitely. My favorite one that we actually got into rotation was “Lincoln Town” off Crossing Muddy Waters. It was fun because it was towards the fourth quarter of the tour and we were in soundcheck and he said, “What do you want to play?” I said, “Lincoln Town.” Then he said, “Yeah but the fellows don’t know it.” And I was like, “Man, that’s our specialty. Kick that shit off.”So we came up with a totally different arrangement of it and it was really a lot of fun.
You mentioned Crossing Muddy Waters and “Lipstick Sunset” is on Bring The Family. Other than Master of Disaster which you just recorded with him do you have a favorite Hiatt disc? (Question by Mike Tawnry)
LD- My favorite Hiatt record is definitely Bring the Family. That’s a funny full circle generation thing about playing with Hiatt. He used to play in Ry Cooder’s band with my dad in the 80s. They did a couple of tours, a lot of soundtrack work and a couple of Cooder records together. But back then he was the young guy. I remember listening to Bring the Family when I was thirteen. I do like Master of Disaster, I like the songs a lot. But Bring the Family is definitely my favorite. Crossing Muddy Waters is also real cool.
To your mind was this a one-off or do you anticipate recording or touring with John Hiatt again? (Question by Steve Gardner)
LD- I think we’ll do it again. We’re planning to go to Europe and do more American dates and hopefully make another record. To me Master of Disaster is a folk rock record. John quit finger picking for years because he hurt his finger on his right hand. But then he got back into it and a lot of these songs come from that finger picking place which is right up my alley.
Did you have any opportunities to write any songs with Hiatt when you were on the road (Question by Evan Williams)?
LD- What happened was he was at the end of the cycle. He made the record, took a break and then we rehearsed thirty songs and hit the road. John and I talked about it, in that period of time when you finish a record is when you quit writing for a little bit. But towards the last week of the tour at soundcheck he busted out some new shit.
I asked him about it and he writes so fast that he’s never been much on collaborating. But he talked about it because we came up with music that he liked jamming on with us at soundcheck. So we can hope for the future but when he writes a song he pretty much just sits down and writes it just like that. It’s pretty amazing.
Do you anticipate doing any more gigs or recording with The Word any time again soon? (Question submitted by many)
LD- We got together for Bonnaroo just to do something special and as it stands, that’s it. But The Word will raise its secular head again in the future when the time’s right.
What about the Smiling Assassins, do you have any plans there (Again, question submitted by many)
LD- Yeah, Jojo [Hermann] was talking about maybe doing some dates next summer and making another record, so yeah.
Have you ever thought about doing a solo acoustic tour? (Question by John Delaney)
LD- Solo acoustic tour? Me? When you see me out there doing that you’ll know that’s when the whole fucking bottom’s dropped out (laughs). I do like the idea of it but what I’m thinking about more is a side project including Cody and Chris but with a heavy folk-rock leaning. Something that’s not bluesy at all.
What happened to Duwayne Burnside? The past couple times I have seen NMAS there has been no Duwayne and I was wondering why he’s not playing with the band anymore? (Question by Kirk Antkiewicz)
LD- Everything falls into place for the right reasons. As crew guys or musicians we work hard, it’s pretty demanding. So after a couple of years that’s the breaking point for a lot of people. Two or three years tops.
Duwayne quit touring with us and that happens. He went on to make a solo record and he’s been on the road doing his own thing. He’s really doing well and we’re still in touch and still collaborate.
My plan for the next year is a Hill Country Revue studio record with Duwayne and Garry and some of the local guys around town like Kenny Brown. I really want to do a Parliament Funkadelic-style Hill Country Revue studio record which I think will be a blast. We’re going to try in January when the downtime comes. That’s the plan for the next record.
I miss Duwayne. We definitely had hard times on the road but I miss him. He’s a great guy and an amazing musician. But on the other hand we did this movie music for Barnyard, a cartoon which he really wouldn’t have had a place in. We did the John Hiatt tour which really wouldn’t have had a place for him. And we did Electric Blue Watermelon which I was already writing and is pretty much a trio-esque record.
It’s funny, as bad-ass as he is, Duwayne is kind of old school. He doesn’t like to jam, to totally improvise. It really makes him uncomfortable and sometimes we’d branch out and he’d have this look of horror on his face. He wants to know what his part is and that’s totally cool but it’s freeing as a trio.
What kind of rehearsal did you put in with Mavis Staples and Buddy Guy for your performance at the Jammys? (Question by Liv Rockwell)
LD- We sat with Mavis for a minute and she was so cool and the queen of soul to me. The Staple Singers was one of my favorite groups, so hanging out with Mavis was great.
There was no rehearsal with Buddy Guy but we grew up playing that song. I have to tell you though, Buddy Guy caught me slipping so bad. For one thing, out of respect, I thought we would just back Buddy up. But then during the song I lost my concentration for a split second. Buddy was doing a solo in “Mojo Working” and I wandered over to the side because something sounded weird. When I turned back around, Buddy was staring me dead in the face and his whole expression was, “Boy, I was going to see if you wanted to play with me but I guess you don’t give a fuck.” I just felt, “Damn, Buddy Guy busted me out.” Since then we went to Japan with Buddy and his band and got to know them and he’s really amazing. I’ve talked to the guitar techs and the band and they say that Buddy knows exactly what’s going on at all times.
I noticed you sitting over on the side of the stage on the road cases during the Jammys, what was going through your head as you sat there (Question by Sam Wilkins)?
LD- Man, there’s something I love about summertime and festivals and situations where you can listen to music. So much of the road is kind of lonesome. But when festivals come around or on special occasions, shit, I love listening to music. That’s where it all comes from. That was during the Duo and I’d never seen them before, they were great.
How would you compare the songwriting process on Electric Blue Watermelon to that of your other discs? (Question by Jake Thompson)
LD- It was pretty similar to 51 Phantom. Polaris was real collaborative. Duwayne brought songs in, Cody brought songs in and everyone had a different style. When Otha Turner passed a couple years ago it made be rethink who I was, what I should be doing and what it is that makes what we do unique. So I pretty much put it all together. Lots of the music is a collaborative effort from within the band and those are my favorite, they come from soundcheck, sitting around playing or improvising on stage. I really like the songs we all write togetherIt is pretty much a reflection on the last ten years of growing up in Mississippi and dealing with the fact that it’s changed so much. Otha and Junior [Kimbrough] died and the Juke Joint’s gone and R.L.’s retired and it is completely different than it used to be. And there’s also a whole Memphis side of it too through my father and his friends. His guitar player that he came up playing with, Lee Baker, was murdered a few years back and they’re still recovering from that. So it’s a real personal record about home and dealing with loss and dealing with growing up.
So what it that you decided makes the band unique?
LD- It’s funny because even on Electric Blue Watermelon there’s not a blues song per se. It turns into rock and roll or folk rock when we do it but I’m glad, it’s natural so I don’t try and second guess. It’s a combination of growing up with the hill country blues and the roots music that my father exposed us to and also a long period of psychedelic experimentation in our youthful days listening to Hendrix and the Allman Brothers and freaking out. That really formed a lot of ideas in our minds about the feeling that music can give you. And then the third piece of the trinity is the church. When I grew up my grandmother played piano in a Baptist church and I’ve always loved gospel music. It always felt that was my entryway to the spiritual. Music is what I love and gospel music always touched me and then there’s Chris Chew who grew up thumping that bass and stomping his foot and singing in church. That combination of southern rock and blues and gospel is what really makes us unique because there are lots of southern rock bands and there are lots of hill country blues bands but nobody has that strange combination that in our second and third year melded together.
It was great working with my father because part of this record is about being a young crazy white boy with the older wiser blues musicians, that life experience. It was something that he and his friends experienced in the 60’s with Furry Lewis and Fred McDowell and Bukka White. So he knew exactly where I was coming from. It was a shared vision. It felt like we finally made the record that we should be able to do but we never did for one reason or another.
Polaris really seemed to depart from the sound of your first albums. What do you account for that and what direction do you see the band headed with the new record? Is part of this a push to receive radio airplay and how important is that to you? (Question by David Griggs)
LD- When our first record came out and the radio started playing it, that totally surprised me. I never expected it. We sound so funny and unlike anything else, that it was something I never strived for. The think about Polaris that was so different is that it was such a collaborative effort and everybody had different styles. Cody has three or four songs and I encouraged him to put his songs on there. I think it freaked out some people because it was so unlike what they had heard on any record of ours. I still assume that fans of our music have an edge because they found us out and we’re kind of off center. But the lesson we learned and it’s still something I deal with, is figuring out what makes the North Mississippi Allstars unique. But no, we never tried to get airplay.
I wrote “Kids These Daze” on Polaris and it’s real poppy-sounding but shit that was heartfelt. We were riding in the van and I was in the back seat writing it on guitar and singing about being on the road. We’d been on the road for four years straight since 99 and you get worn thin, especially because so much of what we do comes from an inner place, this energy we gathered from home. It was a strange period of time for us yet we’re still really proud of the record and some of it is really beautiful.
Are there any particular gig or gigs from over the years that stand out as your favorites? (Question by many)
LD- Man, there are a couple. The first time we played New York City, Cody and I played as a duo at the Lakeside Lounge and that was really pretty fun. We made a lot of the friends there and musicians were there that we got to know over the years. It was a pretty exciting time.
There was also this one late night show at Tipitina’s when Dickey Betts played with us for half the night. That was pretty amazing. Then there was another late night at Tipitina’s when Chris Robinson came and sat in. There was also a festival in Portland, Oregon where Derek played half the show with us. It’s funny, all our shows blend in my memory but I guess the ones I remember are the ones where people I enjoy playing with were there.
A number of people submitted individual song requests for upcoming shows. To what extent do you attempt to honor such requests and what is the most popular one
LD- We put out an effort but certain songs, especially old songs, we don’t go there anymore. But definitely hands down the most requested song is “Washboard! Play washboard!
And when that happens will you typically oblige?
LD- Oh yeah, we always oblige on the washboard, we gotta play it.
Are there any plans to release some live DDT shows in the future? [DDT was the Dickinsons punk group that preceded NMAS and also featured the late Shawn Lane- who among other endeavors later recorded and performed with Jonas Hellborg and Jeff Sipe ] (Question by many)
LD- Wow that’s so funny because I have a box of DATs now that I’m trying to get transferred for that very reason, maybe as a cool download for people to get into. I wish we’d made a studio record but we didn’t unfortunately. You see I tried to pull out my old DATs and transfer them myself but they wouldn’t play and I was petrified. But hopefully I’m going to get those available to people because I think it’s really interesting.
Do you have favorite venue or venues and what makes them so? (Question submitted by many)
LD- There so many variables. Tipitna’s in New Orleans is definitely one of my favorites because it’s such a crazy wild ass place and the things that go on there go on no other place that I know of. (Laughs). But you know, there are beautiful old theaters around the country. I’m a sucker for any old vaudeville or old American theater, I just love those old rooms. Let me think Bonnaroo is definitely a special occasion, that’s always a lot of fun.
Last one, something I would imagine you’ve never been asked beforeAre there ever moments where you blow yourself away on stage? (Question by Evan Cohen)
LD- (Laughs) I wouldn’t say that. To me a good show is when we play something that we’ve never played before, when we’re really out on a limb and it feels inventive. To me that’s a good show when we’re playing wild and loose. It’s funny, Cody likes shows when it’s tight and together but I like loose shows where everybody’s branching out and exploring. So I wouldn’t say I ever we blow me away but some nights are more inspiring, where we’re playing creatively.