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Published: 2016/02/29
by Matt Inman

Luther Dickinson Shares His Songbook

Photo by Dean Budnick

“That’s just kind of the whole American dream right there, when all the ingredients and all the people mix together and make some American rock-and-roll,” says Luther Dickinson, who is as American a musician as you’re likely to find. Dickinson’s father, famed Memphis-area producer Jim Dickinson, introduced Luther and his brother Cody to not only the timeless music of folk and Delta Blues, but also the contemporary sounds of rock-and-roll and even punk music, all through introducing them to the people who created the music and lived the life of the American musician.

Now an accomplished guitarist in his own right, Dickinson heads up the North Mississippi Allstars with Cody, along with The Word, which features NMA teamed up with lap steel master Robert Randolph and keyboardist John Medeski. Dickinson’s latest project is a solo acoustic album called Blues & Ballads (A Folksinger’s Songbook: Volumes I & II), a career-spanning collection of new and old tunes compiled in the classic songbook style. Here, Dickinson speaks about the impetus behind the project, along with the lasting impact his father’s relationships has on his life and career and why playing with The Replacements’ Tommy Stinson made him realize some of his limitations as a guitarist (in a good way).

You’ve described this new album as a life story album—your life story, but also going back to the history of American music.

Well, my interpretation.

Can you talk a little bit about how this idea started and why this is the point in your career in which you wanted to do something like this?

The whole thing started with the art. I wanted to make a songbook. I grew up loving songbooks, folk songs—the Alan Lomax songbook is a great example. Especially in our fathers’ generations, those musicians, they learned so much. That repertoire from the Alan Lomax songbook, he and his father transcribed all the folk songs they collected from all over the world, and they published these things. I grew up studying these things, and I love that stuff. The Beck project, [ Song Reader—I’d already had the idea, but that piece of art is amazing. There’s so much in there. Anyway, I wanted to make a songbook. I love acoustic music, too, and I write all my songs on the acoustic guitar. They all start there. I listen to a lot of acoustic music at home. It was just a dream of mine to make a songbook, and I had a batch of new songs, but I also wanted to rerecord some tunes from my repertoire in an acoustic-folk fashion.

Growing up, I recorded everything through a rock-and-roll filter. Later, I learned that, in some cases, it didn’t suit the songs as well as it could have. So I casually started rerecording songs with my friends, either solo or with the groups of friends wherever I was over the last two years. The one song “Storm” is probably the oldest—it’s easily 20 years old—and I write a lot. I love the American rural tradition of storytelling and folk music and, at one point, I realized that Stagger Lee or Casey Jones were just men, but then the songs made ‘em into these folk heroes. Back in the late ’90s, I started writing about my friends and family, trying to write folk songs about my people, make them into folk heroes. If you look at the songs, it’s really not so much my life story as much as the story of where I grew up, you know? I sing about different musical heroes of mine, and you definitely hear their styles in the guitar.

Your dad Jim was obviously an icon, particularly in that area of the country. You’ve talked about how people have seen your family as a link between the old and the new, and I feel like this album comprises that. Was that kind of what you were trying to do?

It’s trying to make timeless art. I think the format of acoustic guitar and voice, be it Robert Johnson or early Bob Dylan or whatever, that’s my favorite art form and it’s totally timeless. The record is geared towards that, and some of it is the smaller acoustic group. As far as our father, man, our father grew up in Memphis in the ‘50s, and he always played rock-and-roll. He remembered before rock-and-roll. He experienced the whole thing; he figured out open tuning by watching Bo Diddley. It’s like, “What’s he doin’? He’s not makin’ a chord!” You know? And he stayed up all night that night and figured it out. That’s how long ago it was, when no one knew how to play open tuned guitar. And then the blues revival and the folk, the beatniks in the ‘60s—I mean, he was of the age where he was hippie, he was a beatnik, so it was an amazing thing when all the blues giants from Mississippi and Memphis were rediscovered—and that’s Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bukka White, Reverend Robert Wilkins, Furry Lewis was huge in his community.

[My father] and his friends, man, they lived through that and learned from those guys. And then he went on to produce punk rock and psychedelia and all types of crazy music. We grew up around all that, and then we came up in the ‘90s in Mississippi and there was another blues resurgence with R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough and all of those families. All of a sudden, there’s like modern-day, electrified, multi-generational country-blues, and it blew my mind. I couldn’t believe it. And then, by the time I’m done with it—especially when we’re plugged in—it’s rock-and-roll. That’s just kind of the whole American dream right there, when all the ingredients and all the people mix together and make some American rock-and-roll.

Speaking of your father, you have that song “Ain’t No Grave” on this record. Can you talk a little bit about when and why you wrote that song?

Our father passed in ’09, and I wrote a lot of songs in that period of time, celebrating him. I do folk songs, but it’s also the blues—right there, when you’re so sad that your art just pours out. I rarely play it in public, because it’s not appropriate at a nightclub or a party atmosphere. But I love it when people go to those songs for comfort. It’s so sweet when people tell me that. I’m glad, you know—that’s what music’s for. I wrote that song one morning, woke up on the bus and then wrote the whole thing before I even turned on the light. It just came pouring out. I get back on the bus and got my guitar and got my songbook and I went in the bathroom, and the music and melody came out just so quick. It took a while to record it, but it was a very easy song to write.

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