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Published: 2011/02/01
by Brian Robbins

North Mississippi Allstars
Keys To The Kingdom

Songs of the South Records

That one line at the bottom of the liner notes says it all: “Produced for Jim Dickinson.” Not “by” – “for.”

Brothers Cody and Luther could pay no better tribute to their late father, Southern soulmaster Jim Dickinson, than Keys to the Kingdom, the new album from the brothers’ North Mississippi Allstars. The Dickinsons and bassist Chris Chew tucked themselves into the family-owned studio at Zebra Ranch last year and simply let their feelings roll in the form of music.

The end result has all the makings of an honest, open, soul-flushing wake: sadness, sweetness, humor, and, yes, a little anger. That’s the emotion that opens Keys to the Kingdom: the Stonesy boogie of “This A’Way”, followed by a bad case of the “Jumpercable Blues” – what it might have sounded like if Iggy and The Stooges had done a country song. This is a Delta version of primal scream therapy with a thread of goofy glory running through it: “Hey, hey, well, well, well/All y’all can go straight to hell!” The anger is diffused by the final crash of the drums and the bottlenecked chord that shoots up the guitar neck, ending in a heaven-bound harmonic.

There are reflections on moving beyond earth-bound struggles: “How I Wish My Train Would Come” has all the thinking man’s poignancy of a Paul Westerberg song, while “Hear The Hills” looks the end right in the eye without a flinch. (The main portion of the song ends at the four-minute mark, then returns as a majestic instrumental that soars like an escort of angels.) There’s even an irreverent look at resurrection with the Roky-Erickson-meets-Bo-Diddley tumble of “New Orleans Walkin’ Dead”.

Friends of the Dickinson family sit in here and there, with beautiful piano interludes from Spooner Oldham and a shimmering it-could-only-be-Ry-Cooder guitar on “Ain’t No Grave” to a joyous gospel-flavored celebration of what awaits on the other side with Mavis Staples on “The Meeting” and a traditional-style string band blues holler with Alvin Youngblood Hart on “Ol’ Cannonball”.

The one cover on Keys to the Kingdom is Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”, which might seem an odd choice without the back story: right to the end, Jim challenged and encouraged his sons to push their musical boundaries. The idea to try “Stuck Inside” as a one-chord hill country porch stomp was written on a piece of paper by Jim in the hospital and handed to his sons after he lost the ability to speak. It absolutely works, both as a stand-alone song and another way for Luther and Cody to pay tribute to their father.

Actually, that’s true of Keys to the Kingdom as a whole: it’s easily hands-down one of the best albums the North Mississippi Allstars have ever recorded.

The fact that they chose to share it with all of us is a great gift.

Rest in peace, James Luther Dickinson 11/15/41 – 8/15/09

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