Bringing It All Back Home with Luther Dickinson
The North Mississippi Allstars are currently on a seven-week stint with Mavis Staples, Charlie Musselwhite and Joe Krown on the Solid Blues Tour. This is the initial salvo in a long list of upcoming activity for the band. The band has just released their first acoustic album on their own Songs of the South label, Mississippi Folk Music, Vol. 1 (which is only avaialable online and on the road). They will also be releasing their followup to Electric Blue Watermelon in January, titled Hernando (an appropriate title since the Dickinsons were born and raised in Hernando, Mississippi). Later in 2008, the band will deliver _Do It Like We Used to Do_a historical retrospective of their career that spans from 1996 (including footage of their first gig) through 2007 with a DVD and a two-disc live set.
Jambands.com sat down with guitarist and vocalist, Luther Dickinson and also discussed his recent studio collaborations on forthcoming releases from the Black Crowes and John Hiatt. Dickinson is a friendly, humorous southern gentleman who has a refreshingly humble attitude about the sometimes-chaotic world in which the musician dwells. As the interview progresses, the reader should take note as to how Dickinson applies that attitude to his music as he opens up about his origins, art, road work, setlists and his relationship with NMAS band member and brother, Cody and his legendary father, musician/producer Jim Dickinson. His father began the whole creative process and his sons continue to expand upon that familial legacy while bringing it all back home.
RR: How’s the Solid Blues Tour going with the North Mississippi Allstars playing with Mavis Staples, Charlie Musselwhite and Joe Krown?
LD: Joe opens up the show; then, we go out and do a half-acoustic, half-electric set. That’s really cool. We take intermission, come back with Charlie and then, we bring Mavis out. By the end of the show, everybody’s out there. We’re having a good time, man. I love Charlie and Mavis, both. Charlie’s the real deal. He grew up in Mississippi and moved to Memphis. We’ve been talking a lot. He moved to Chicago in the late 50s and was right there in the middle of the whole Chicago blues scene. In 1967, he moved to San Francisco and he was right in the middle of that whole scene. He’s a really, really happening guy. He’s such an amazing musician.
Mavis, manthe early Staples Singers stuff has always been one of my favorites. That’s just some of my favorite music in the world, ever since I was a little kid. We’ve done a lot of Staples Singers songs in the past. We’ve worked with Mavis before here and there; we did the Jammys together one year; we recorded for Bonnaroo once but, this tour is so cool. We’ve really learned a lot. With Mavis, you really have to get into the old school idea of accompanying the singer at a vocalist level. Most everybody uses monitors and plays loud but Mavis doesn’t like to use monitors. She likes to use the house. That’s some work and you have to be really quiet on stage; you have to accompany her. I’ve heard stories about Pop Staples teaching musicians to play dynamically, so to experience that first hand is really cool.
RR: How much rehearsal did you have for the tour?
LD: One dayabout three or four hours with both people. It’s cool, man.
RR: What material did you work on?
LD: Mavis and Charlie both sent us CDs of what they wanted to do so we all did our individual thing and then, came together and worked it out. Charlie is really cool because we’ve always been kind of free form and loose with endings and he has pretty specific endings so it has been fun working those out. With Mavis, you just have to follow her. You do her thing. Everybody gets along great on this tour. Charlie and Mavis are old friends and we all love both of them. We’re having a blast. Joe Krown plays his ass off. He’s a bad ass keyboard player who grew up in Boston and moved to New Orleans. He’s really cooking, man. He’s a great musician and he also joins us for Mavis’s set.
RR: That unique musical bond is a common trait you share with Mavis Staples and her family. Would you like to talk about the importance of coming from a strong musical family?
LD: I grew up in a musical community and that has always been to our advantage for our whole career because we’ve done lots of collaborations over the years with lots of different types of people and it all just comes from being musicianshanging out and making friends with cats and trying to hustle things up. We did an early collaboration with Jon Spencer and one with John Medeski and Robert RandolphThe Wordand we backed JoJo Herman on one of his solo projects; we went on and recorded with John Hiatt and toured with him for two years. I just think it’s a musician thing, man. Growing up, our father taught us to play in lots of different styles. He’s a keyboard player so, also, we learned to play with keyboard players because it’s a different type of thing. That has always proven to be positive for me. It’s just cool, man. I don’t know what it is about musical families.
RR: And here you are playing with Mavis who is also from that background.
LD: Right. Yeah and, you know, I’ve always wanted to be that type of a rhythm section. You had the Stax rhythm section and the Muscle Shoals rhythm section; I just think of the idea of a musical unit that can back up any type of an artist.
RR: I got to see NMAS as that musical unit when you played with John Hiatt in 2005. I saw the show at that circular theatre in Arizona for a Relix review.
LD: Yeah, that circular place. That place was cool. I read that piece.
RR: Was it alright? (laughter)
LD: Yeah, man. It was cool. (laughs) John was really great. He’s such a great singer-songwriter and he really taught us a lot. Over two years, overall, we rehearsed for about three weeks with John. He really took the time and taught us his music by hand, pretty much. Once again, it is like working with a really good vocalist, which is such a gas. We do our thing but it’s not really vocal-heavy, you know? Things like Bring the Family are such a classic. Cody and I really went back and studied the records. We both love his records and it is kind of cool to bring the material full circle back to the original, closer to the record.
RR: Has your relationship with your brother, Cody changed over the years?
LD: Man, we’re just really good partners. It really hasn’t changed that much; we just do our thing. He keeps me in check. (laughter) I just value his friendship and companionship. I value his musical telepathy. He’s really talented; he can play any instrument and he’s just so amazing.
RR: You are also enjoying a continuing musical relationship with John Hiatt.
LD: I’ve recently had the pleasure of recording with him on his new recordmainly acoustic. I think there’s electric guitar on four or five songs but it’s really nice. I think his fans are going to like it, a lot. He’s finishing it right now. We recorded it right after Bonnaroo in Tennessee. I worked with John for about 11, 12 days.
RR: Are you going to get to play with him live, again?
LD: I hope so, man. I hope so. Like I said, it’s mainly an acoustic record so it is hard to say how he will tour it.
RR: Let’s talk about the new acoustic record that is available online and on tour.
LD: Well, we have started our own record company called Songs of the South and the title is kind of convoluted but it is Songs of the South Presents Mississippi Folk Music, Volume 1. We opened up playing acoustic for two years with Hiatt; we did two acoustic tours last year and, as I said, we are opening up this tour playing acoustic. This is part of what we do and it is a very different side. I love it; it is very close to my heart. I love acoustic music.
RR: Where was it recorded? What material is on the album?
LD: We have our own studio at our dad’s place and we do almost everything there. The album has a lot of traditional folk songs that we love and there are a couple of originals that are on there. We didn’t want to do all originals, acoustic style. I just wanted to get some different tunes out there and represent what we’re going to be doing on this tour. It’s really live. We recorded it in two days and mixed it in one day.
RR: A project that took a while to see a U.S. release is The Man Who Lives For Love, your collaboration with Jon Spencer, which came out earlier this year.
LD: Yeah, that was a while ago, man. We did some shows opening up for him. Judah Bauer [Blues Explosion guitarist and vocalist] is actually a great friend and the first few trips to New York City, I slept on his floor. Judah is how we got to know Jon and then we opened up for the Explosion and we got to hanging out and became friends. He called us and he has different types of tunes, I guess. It was really cool the way that session went down. We did two different sessions and they both flowed the same way. The first night, he’d have a set with a bunch of different riffs so we would listen to a cassette and we would just jam on each riff, just kind of free form. The next day, he would take each song, arrange it and cut it. We worked really fast and furious, which I really appreciate. I learned a lot from him. It was really cool and organic. I love working with Jon.
RR: How do you feel about the tour you did with Jon Spencer last year?
LD: He came on the road with us for two or three weeksup and down the East Coast. It was good, man. We would open up the show with Spencer Dickinson and the Allstars would close and he would come back out. Some of our fans were a little close-minded about it, which is surprising.
RR: Interesting. What element does he bring that may put people off?
LD: I don’t know, man. I was really disappointed in the fans. I think he’s great. I hope we get to do that, again. I love Jon.
RR: How about future collaborations with The Word?
LD: We have tentative plans to do a tour in the South after Christmas. We hope. We’ve toured the Northeast twice and the West Coast once but we’ve never got to play the South so we’re finally going to do it. It would be up to New Year’s. We’re going to split up for New Year’s Eve.
RR: On this year’s NMAS DVD release, Keep On Marchin’, there is a preview of Do It Like We Used To Do, which will be a forthcoming second DVD. Would you like to talk about that latter release and the forthcoming studio album?
LD: Sure. We put off the DVD release until the middle of next year because we just finished our new studio album, Hernando, which will be out in January after recording it all through the month of September. I’m really happy with it. It’s a nasty blues-rock band. It’s happening. So, we’re going to put that out in January and then later next year, Do It Like We Used To Doa two-disc live retrospective culled from ’96 through ’07. Man, that was a torturous process, let me tell you. (laughs) It goes back to when we started the Allstars and we actually recorded our first show, which will be on it. It’s really cool, mantwo discs of live material, a DVD documentary and a collection of video footage over the years. It’s really a history of the band.
RR: So for you, it has been folk and blues to punk with your band, DDT to garage to Southern rock to acoustic and now, back to the blues.
LD: (laughs) Well, you knowit was really all happening at the same time because we had a jugband even back in the DDT days. I’ve always played folk and blues on my own, always. It’s just that in different eras, different things would pop up but it’s really all been the same part of it. Even before DDT, we were backing up our dad and playing all kinds of roots music. With DDT, we were just experimenting and growing up and jacking off and getting high and having fun then, at a certain point, I just lost my taste for it and country blues is all I wanted to do.
RR: All of those musical styles are part of your mix so it makes sense to me that a release like Screwed and Chopped, the Electric Blue Watermelon demos/outtakes EP, seems like a natural progression for the Allstars.
LD: (laughs) Man, if you hang out in Houston drinking cough syrup, it is a natural progression. (laughter)
RR: Exactly. One can even get a contact high just by listening to it.
LD: Pass out right on the floor. The cool thing, though, is that Screwed and Chopped really trips us out because it is such an underground sound. What I like about it is that it is kind of psychedelic in nature. It’s like a music style inspired by and based on a drug experience. (laughs) I was like, “Right on!” That’s Cody’s thing, man. He totally made that happen. I think it’s totally unique and I like some of those versions better. It really influenced our new record because when you write a song, sometimes you write it and you play it fast. You think that’s where it should be. When you listen to Screwed and Chopped, you think, “Man, that’s pretty happeningit’s slow and funky.” Some of the songs we recorded for the new record, we had to recut because we cut them too slow. They were too slow. They’re still slow but we had to speed them up a little bit. That is totally the influence of that and it is a good part of growing up.
RR: Your guitar sound on Screwed and Chopped also offers a unique experience.
LD: They sound so heavy, you know? It’s so funny, man. If you look at the iTunes reviews of that album, it was not very well received. This one guy said, “Another embarrassment for Mississippi.” (laughs) It cracked me up.
RR: Let’s talk about another recent collaboration on an upcoming studio album. What was it like to record with the Black Crowes?
LD: They just hired me to come do the session. It was really cool. I’ve been friends with those guys for a while. It was a lot of funthree weeks up in the mountains in Woodstock in upstate New York. It was pretty crazy. It’s a cool record, man. I’ve been a fan for a long time. We cut too many tunes and I don’t know what they will pare it down to but I guess we cut 14 or 15. There’s a nice rangethere’s rock n’ roll, there’s funk, there’s country ballads and some of their ballads are really strong, I think. It was a lot of fun. It’s a really live recordrecorded right off the floor. I’m on just about all the tracks.
RR: How about playing live with the Black Crowes on New Year’s Eve at Madison Square Garden last year?
LD: That was a blast, man, just to get to play that venue. It was really cool. My father-in-law was really impressed. (laughter) That was fun. I had never even been there before.
RR: Since we’re talking about jamming with some greats, how about something a little more recentwhat about playing with the Allman Brothers Band in August?
LD: Oh man, that was so cool. Definitely a highlight. I love all those guys; they are all greatDerek [Trucks], Warren [Haynes] and I are really good friends. I even got to talk to Gregg [Allman] a little bit. He’s super cool. It’s really great because when Gregg starts singing, it’s like “WHOOSH,” and that is just like Mavis, one of those voices that you grew up loving.
RR: Speaking of Derek Trucks, you will be playing on New Year’s Eve at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta with his band and Derek’s wife, Susan Tedeschi.
LD: We’re going to open up the show. Susan and Derek and his band are just a great thing. I love the repertoire that they put together. It’s like a lot of Southern soul and some really good stuff.
RR: Will there be collaboration between the bands on that night?
LD: I hope so. I hope so. My friend invited me to Widespread Panic later on that night but I said, “Man, I’d love to but I think I’m going to stay at the Fox and stay loyal to the gig. I’m going to stick around and hang out with Derek.”
RR: Loyalty to the gigthat’s a good phrase that brings to mind Mudboy and the Neutrons.
LD: Yes, that was our father’s band [Jim Dickinson] that we grew up listening to and later playing with. It was he and his buddies and they were all disciples of Furry Lewis and Sleepy John Estes and Bukka White. They were in existence when all of these blues musicianswho played in the heyday of the blueswere rediscovered. That band was definitely an inspiration to me to be a musician, growing up watching those guys.
RR: Did you start off on guitar?
LD: Yep, that’s all I ever wanted to do.
RR: No piano, no drums, just give me the guitar.
LD: I tinkered and messed around on them and all of that but I’m no good on it.
RR: Did you pick up right away on the guitar?
LD: No, it was a long battle. (laughter) It was not natural but I had such a desire.
RR: Was it having to sit down and learn everything hour after hour?
LD: Yeah, for years and years and years. We were little kids, man. Cody and I got guitars at the same age and he’s such a natural talent. He picked it up right away. I was still struggling and struggling. When he was about 11, I think, he switched to drums and I was getting my act together a little bit so we’ve had a band ever since.
RR: What was your father’s roledid he encourage or did he leave you alone?
LD: He discouraged us at first but then he was always helpful once he realized that we took it seriously. At first, he said, “Don’t do this just because I do this. It can be a hard life.” He didn’t force it on usespecially me, I was just fascinated with it.
RR: What do you think now after all of this time?
LD: Man, I like those family businesses and the whole aspect of carrying the tradition on and I think that it has worked to our advantage.
RR: And your father’s take on your accomplishments?
LD: He’s proud of us. It’s funny. He was never much of a touring musician. He made his way in the studio but it was the only way we could find to make our way so we went out in late 1998 and we’ve been on the road ever since. We kind of had to beat our own path but it works for us. We were really lucky, man, because from 1998 to whatever, it’s a really great scene, you know? Jambands were just touring non-stop. All the bands were really cool and took us under their wings. We got to open up with Medeski and the Mule and had a lot of fun with Galactic, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion. It was good times.
RR: What were some of your experiences touring with Galactic?
LD: We did around a hundred shows with those guys and had a lot of fun. Man, we had some good times together. They just kept hiring us to go on the road with them and we had a ball. We were out there paying our dues, man, making 250 bucks a night. The fans were great and the bands were great and everything else was getting on our way.
RR: How do you stay fresh on the road as a musician? How do you keep your focus?
LD: Man, to me, I just stay focused on the music and I just enjoy playing every nightit can be two, two and a half hours and I just enjoy it. This is what I’ve always wanted to do and I get to do it in a new city every night. This is a dream come true; doesn’t matter where you are, Col. Bruce [Hampton] taught me that. Col. Bruce said, “Be it 10 people or 100,000 people, don’t let it effect you because it is just your ego fucking with you.” If you just focus on the music in any situation then, you’ll be in the right mindset. That’s cool because it keeps you from getting frustrated, it keeps you from getting nervous and you train yourself to go right into the zone. Doesn’t matter what the situation is.
RR: Does shifting songs on a setlist help keep things fresh, too?
LD: Yeah. Yeah. I always do that. I keep books. The way I look at it is if I’m in Detroit, I go back and check out the last time we were in Detroit and see what set we did that time. It changes night to night but I don’t ever want to go to a city and do a similar set to one that we did six months ago or a year ago. If you come to Detroit and you open up with the same song that you opened up with a year ago, that’s a disaster! (laughter) That’s the way I look at it. Different bands like Panic and Galactic do different things. Panic has a three-night cycle that they go through. If they play one song, they will definitely not play it the next night but they might play it the third night. The problem that I come across is that when we have a new record out, I’m just always so hyped to play the new record that the sets get a little similar. You’ll be reading the kids on the message boards and they are bitching and moaning but I just like playing the new stuff when it’s fresh.
RR: What about the setlists when you are backing someone like John Hiatt?
LD: He would make the setlists up every night. I don’t know what criteria he would use. He got into some patterns but he would definitely address it every night. He had two songs that he liked to open up with and then he would just go from there. A lot of itin Hiatt’s case and my case, toohas to do with slightly technical things like guitar tunings and keeping the flow. What we really got into that I like doing is playing three or four songs without stopping before we even take a break, before we even give the audience an opportunity for a break.I also learned something from Trey that really tweaked my dome and that is how important the keys are in a set. I read, back in the day, that Trey would stay up all night looking for the right combination of keys. Because if you look at the whole set as one composition, the keys are all relative. If you move from B flat to A, it feels kind of awkward, you know? You have to be careful about that stuff.
I was talking to Medeski about it and he had an even more convoluted way to look at it. Trey was talking about it in a linear fashionbuilding the set up and then, maybe, bringing it back down and then, coming back up. Medeski said that if you look at all of the relatives then you can really jump from key to key. I really take that into consideration. It is one whole experience and sometimes, especially when you’re singing, you can play a song and then, start the next song but if the keys are awkward, it might even be hard to find your pitch, your tonal center. You have to be careful with that.
RR: It is very interesting that you said that because last October in Las Vegas, I saw Trey and Medeski play with Phil Lesh & Friends. Phil, obviously, created the setlist and he began with Phish’s “Ghost,” and the set just took off into a loose, deep space.
LD: Yeah, I like that. It’s important, man, how you setup your show. It’s funny, I look at old setlists that I wrote and think, “Ooh, whoathat’s whack.” (laughter) It’s funny with us, and it is very common with a lot of bands, but if your first recordif you’re luckyhas an impact then, people will always go back to it. We will always play songs from the first record and whatever we are into at the time. That’s just what people think of when they think of your band, sometimes. It’s kind of like home base, you know? We’ll just stretch out from there. I really respect the audience a lot. I’m not trying to jerk them around. I’m not aiming to please but I don’t want them feeling unsatisfied.
RR: What does the next year look like to you?
LD: Well, I think there’s a lot of road work ahead. We have the retrospective coming out. We have the acoustic and new studio records coming out so I feel like we’ve done our recording for a bit. It’s been a great year, we took time off the road and we wrote a new record, compiled the retrospective and did the acoustic record. It’s really a cool feeling. I’m a workaholic so it is hard for me not to have anything to work on but it is kind of a release to have all of the projects behind me for the time being. I’m just going to enjoy myself and hit the road.
RR: Aren’t you in Napa Valley in Northern California this afternoon? Are you going to hit any of that fine wine?
LD: (laughs) Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. We were in Humboldt, yesterday so we were enjoying the local flavors. We’ve been on the 101 for the last two days and it is beautiful.
_- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com