Cody Dickinson and Hill Country Revue Make a Move
Cody Dickinsons Hill Country Revue formed out of necessity, but its unfair to simply describe the all-star group as a fallback plan. In 2008, the North Mississippi Allstars took a breather so lead guitarist Luther Dickinson could focus on his new gig with The Black Crowes. Taking a cue from a family jam session the Allstars hosted at Bonnaroo in 2004, the remaining members of the triodrummer Cody Dickinson and bassist Chris Chewstarted to assemble a loose revue featuring the core band of Ed ‘Hot’ Cleveland (drums), Daniel Coburn (vocals) and Kirk Smithhart, as well as the contributing associates Martin Shore (drums), Garry Burnside (guitar) and Aaron Julison (bass). Further separating the Hill Country Revue from the North Mississippi Allstars, the younger Dickinson switched from drums to guitar both on the road and on the groups studio debut, Make a Move. Below, Cody Dickinson discusses his new instrument, walks us through the Hill Country Revues development and clues us onto why the hip-hop and jamband scenes arent that different.
*Lets start at the beginning. When did the Hill Country Revue first come together? *
In 2008, the Allstars took a break from touring. I had the year off, pretty much, and I found myself with enough time to play with a lot of the musicians Ive been wanting to work with. Ive never had a chance to work with these guys with the Allstars on the road so much. So when it came time to put a band together, I reached out to Garry Burnside, who Ive been friends with for years, and we started jamming with [Chris] Chew and Kirk [Smithhart].
Now, the fascinating part about the development of Hill Country is that Kirk and I met in church of all places. I heard his playing on a record that I was releasing on my digital label and it just got my attention. I was like, who was that? And they said it was a guy named Kirk Smithhart from Memphisan up-and-coming guitarist. And sure enough I was at church with my ex-girlfriend, and Im sitting there and I cant see him but I hear this amazing guitar playing and Im like, Who is this guy? So the next time I walk up and talk to him briefly there after the service. And then I run into him in Italy the next time. Im over there doing a random festival with the Allstars and the elevator opens up in the bottom lobby of the hotel and theres Kirk. And we start talking. So thats a long story but it was very, truly meant to be. It was like a blessing. It was amazing. *The North Mississippi Allstars also called its all-star jam-session at Bonnaroo in 2004 the Hill Country Revue. I assume you named your new project after that set and subsequent live album? *
I named the band after the Allstars performance at Bonnaroo. I felt like it encompassed what I wanted to do with the project. I made a very conscious decision not to stray artistically too far from what Id been doing. It was very much a case of wanting to continue on the same path, so it just made sense. I honestly had quite a few good names, and I put a poll up on a blog and asked people what the coolest name was and Hill Country Revue won by a landslide. I had a couple more like Hand-Me Down Blues Band. And it identifies us with the Allstars enough to where I think people will get it, Allstar fans get it. It was wide open so it gave us all room to work under the name of a revue, meaning that the line up can change. Its more of a dynamic entity opposed to being set in stone. *Though Garry Burnside wrote many Hill Country Revue songs and appears on the album, he does not always tour with the group. How does that change the Hill Country Revues dynamic? *
Garry Burnside is a huge part of the group who doesnt tour with us. There are others like him, like Duane, his older brother. Obviously Luther plays a big part in the band. Luther was huge when I was first putting the group together. I think the final key player was Dan Coburn. When I got Daniel down to be our singerwhen he moved to Memphis and started working with us full timethats when we really found our voice. Really thats when it started to take off. The recording started to get peoples attention and the gigs were solid.
The line-up changed quite a bit but I think its an old fashioned way of making records and touring bands where its not necessarily the same musicians on a record as it is at the show. I like basically to focus on my strengths as an artist and I focus on other peoples strengths. So I brought in the best guitar player, the best singer, the best songwriter and tried to produce a record that we are all proud of. And once that really started to click
Another key person was Aaron Julison. He plays with Kid Rock of all people. A promoter in Florida named Sharisse [Pessar] gave me his CD and said, You need to listen to this. It blew me away, and I instantly called a random number on the CD. That led to a long-time friendship with Julison who produced what I heard. Once Julison came from Detriot and helped me co-produce with Dan singing, thats when the gel really just solidified. And we all knew we were on to something. And bringing all these heavy hitters in it took on a life of its own, and I no longer had to orchestrate and be behind, pulling strings and doing tricks. It sort of just started to grow naturally, organically. *Did you always plan to play guitar in Hill Country Revue? *
There have been a lot of interesting twists and turns along the way with Hill Coutnry. We sort of roll with the puncheswe dont see things as a setbacks, we see them as opportunities. Kirk totally encouraged me to move to guitar. Garry had some family issues and had some other shows. We were leaving for a JJ Grey and MOFRO tour, and he didnt make the first show in Fayetteville, and I was racking my brain trying to think of a guitar player to replace him. He was such a key player in the grand scheme of the band. And Id already exhausted my possibilities of guitar players. And Kirk said, Dude, lets call [drummer] Edward Hot Cleveland and why dont you move to guitar. As soon as he mentioned it, I was like, Thats what weve gotta do! It was that tour where we went to NY and [our label] Razor and Tie saw us play, and we got signed and the whole deal. It really took of once the five of us got together. I love playing guitar! My goodness, I didnt really realize I was missing out on all the fun! It separates Hill Country from the Allstars completely. There is no confusion. I play drums in one band and guitar in the other. Thats pretty different. *You were originally a guitarist actually, correct? *
I started on guitar and moved to drums when I was like 12 or 13 to accompany Luther. Hes just an amazing guitarist, and he was progressing so fast as a teenager. There was no way I could keep up. I picked it back up in my 20s but I just recently got to the point Im definitely more of a rhythm player where I can play pretty fluent solos, and Im really getting into lead improvisation.
*Another difference between Hill Country Revue and the North Mississippi Allstars is that your new group has a defined frontman. *
Its a bit of a lost art in rock and roll these days, and Daniel pulls it off. Im so proud of him. I cant say enough about this group. When the pressures on, we really step it up a few notches. Weve been in some pretty for a relatively new band thats been at it for about a year weve been put in some intense situations already. And these guys come out with flying colors. Im so proud of it and to be a part of it and watching it grow is amazing. *The North Mississippi Allstars definitely tow the line between bluesy improvisation and more song-oriented albums. Where do you see the Hill Country Revue falling on that scale? *
Well, thats ever-changing. We definitely focused on song structure at first because I think its easier to get tight and then loosen up, as opposed to the other way around. It never gets tight and thats not a bad thing. A big part of what got peoples attention with this group were the songs. Theyre very relatable and also authentic, modern blues, which is just hard to come by these days. In the sense that Garry, he played with Junior Kimbrough his whole lifehes just an amazing talent and very prolific writer. His songs just resonate with me. They have a sort of nitty-gritty, down-home feel but theyre also sophisticated and new. Its just a great combination. But that being said, the new stuff were working on is real upbeat and groovy. People can dance to it. We have the tight hard rockers under our belt. We bring the heat and melt the faces. No doubt with the rock and roll guitar frontal attack, we have that down. Now, I wanna kinda loosen the band up a bit. One trick weve been using is to drop a few songs off the set list so we have to stretch other ones out. It works too! Kirk and I can go all day soloing on guitars. But Dan is really good at bringing the verses back in when its time to pull the reins back a little bit. Hes the man. Hes real good at that. Chew and I, it feels so good cause we didnt miss a beat. Were picking up right where we left off.
At first, I was producing this record before the band even knew it. I was calling it a rehearsal and setting up microphones and recording it. And thats ultimately what Alice Mae is. And I think it had a lot to do with us gaining momentum early on because I was releasing the music as we were making it. It was very live and vibrant. And once we got signed we had a chance and the time to go in and focus a little more on the recordings. But we pretty much play it once and thats it. The bulk of the material was recorded at the Zebra Ranch Studios we have down in Mississippi, its my dads place. Its basically just a barn out in the country. And thats where we were rehearsing so it was comfortable. I think we cut six of the tracks down there. The other four tracks come from Young Avenue Sound, and we did them all in one day. *That live feeling is definitely apparent throughout the album. * Georgia Women is off the floor, totally liveincluding vocals. That was done in the barn. Let Me Love You Baby. Thats live off the floor. And again, I had the tracks at home afterwards and I was able to edit them and manipulate them a little bit, but I pretty much left it as is. Kevin Houston, our amazing engineer here in Memphis, he mixed the stuff while I was on tour. He did it all. He did all the mixes. And I was like, This sounds great, I love it, dont change a thing. It was a painless process and I think that says a lot for the project. When things are meant to be they seem to just to happen. As opposed to forcing it. Every band runs into that Oh man, your live shows are great! If your records reflected how hot you were live, then youd be getting somewhere. I didnt want to get caught in that trick bag. So I made sure the record was as live as it could be. When people go to a show, like the show, and buy a CD, take it home and listen to it, they get what they expect.
Theres a great integrity in the jamband world. The fans are fans of good players and good musicianship, and its a very musical world to be in. I think the one common thread that ties each jamband to the other is that there is at least one or two guys in each band who can play their asses off. And a lot of the time, its all of them. If you cant bring it live on stage, they wont even pay you the first bit of attention. But then again, you dont have to have a hit record or be a pop sensation for them to get into it. They truly react to the music in a very genuine way. Its almost like jazz or something. Its very sophisticated. Ive always been flattered to be a part of the jam scene. Its a very cool world to be in. *You grew up with the blues and later discovered punk and hip-hop. When do you feel the jamband crowd really caught on to the North Mississippi Allstars? *
When Bonnaroo was first happening, it was a real exciting time. It was very much the combination of all of the elements together that made it a success. There were no big headliners and there was no Metallica playing Bonnaroo. It was Superfly. To me the promoters were the superstars of the early days of the jamband scene, really sort of busting out. It was real exciting. There was a lot of energy and a lot of people looking for the same thing. And the guys in Superfly knew how to give it to them, and knew how to present it in a way that, collectively, we all benefited from it. Thats amazing. Thats really something to be proud of. I think the Allstars, that first year at Bonnaroo, we carved a niche that were still in. Were real grateful for that. *Though Bonnaroo has expanded to include headliners from all different genres, it has also introduced those bands to the jamband audience. *
It launched a lot of bands. Thats another cool thing about the jamband genre thats still regional. Its like hip hop in that way. I can listen to a rap record and know well thats from Houston or thats from Memphis and thats from Atlantaor thats obviously from San Francisco. Its like they have these distinct styles, but they mesh in a real interesting way, and I want to tap into some of that in the next Hill Country record. I have some ambitious, lofty producers in mindlike Quincy Jones is amazing or even Dr. Dre. You know, fuck it, I wanna get the best producers out there and let them hear the band and I think theyd be into it. I really have high expectations for the future of Hill Country. Its an amazing group of guys Im so proud to be a part of. Theres real longevity here. Were blues musicians and were still real young. Were ready to get after it. These guys are ambitious. Were the young pups on the block.