Luther Dickinson, guitarist and vocalist for the roots/blooze/rawk trio North Mississippi Allstars, which hails from Coldwater (situated, not so surprisingly, in the northern end of Mississippi), knows of this thing called sleep. Specifically, the lack of it.
Calling on his cell phone from Chicago, he's been up since well before dawn, having appeared with his fellow Allstars (traps sibling Cody Dickinson and bassist Chris Chew) on a local television morning show, playing a couple of tunes on a Windy City street and answering a handful of questions posed via monitor by the chipper talking heads back at the station. This on the heels of a prestigious gig the night before at the House of Blues, with another set coming up in a few hours opening for Steve Earle at the Lincoln Park Zoo. The Allstars are touring to promote Shake Hands With Shorty, their debut album issued recently by Tone-Cool Records.
At the moment, Dickinson is laughing as he recounts the Allstars' appearance on the Conan O'Brien show a couple of nights earlier. The trio had ripped through the lead track on Shorty, "Shake 'Em on Down"--the guitarist unleashing jaw-dropping bottleneck licks while the rhythm section occupied Keith Moon-John Entwistle territory--and, according to Dickinson, there's a reason they looked like they were hot-wired on the tube.
"Any time one of us can take a nap before a show--it doesn't matter who, as long as one of us gets a nap--it's going to be a good show," he says. "So we were there in the green room watching on the monitors this Dole-Bush skit, the interview with Harrison Ford and all that, and there were at least 10 people back there, but I just nodded off. I woke up and then I was ready! Our first national TV, too. Really fun--Conan was a nice guy, and he's really, really tall. Taller than our bass player--and Chris is a big guy! I told him he did a good job with Harrison Ford and he just went, 'Whoah...that was a tough one!'"
The road from Coldwater to Conan may have been long for the Allstars, but, literally from birth, it's been a fortuitous one. Much has been made in the press about the Dickinsons' storied lineage and rightly so: Their dad is none other than Memphis producer and sessionman Jim Dickinson, a man who's rubbed elbows with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Big Star, Aretha Franklin, Ry Cooder, Jon Spencer, the Replacements and scores more. Suffice to say the brothers have been around music all their lives. Legend has it that baby Luther's first word was "studio"; by age 14--he's now 27, Cody being three years his junior--he'd logged his first session credit, contributing guitar to a track on the 'mats '87 album Pleased To Meet Me.
At that point the brothers were both playing in punk rock bands, gradually broadening their musical palette by the early '90s in the psych/punk/jazz/rock hybrid outfit DDT and becoming a fixture on the Memphis club scene. A few years earlier, Jim Dickinson had moved his family from Memphis to the more rural Mississippi confines, and before too long the indigenous sounds of the region began to cast their spells upon both Luther and Cody.
(They were particularly smitten by R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough--Kimbrough's legendary Juke Joint was located in nearby Holly Springs--and Otha Turner. Not only did they begin sitting in with the elder bluesmen and their bands, but Luther recorded Turner's Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, eventually releasing the results as Everybody Hollerin' Goat on Birdman Records in 1997.)
WHEN IT BECAME apparent that DDT's tenure was coming to a close, they gave high school chum Chew a call, aiming to mount a band that reflected their new musical passions, and by '96 the North Mississippi Allstars were gigging on a regular basis.
Shake Hands With Shorty is a hugely impressive debut, and one preceded by a big media buzz, thanks in no small part to the hook of the family name. Yet, clearly, the buzz was also a byproduct of the band's live prowess, honed through many nights in the clubs and on the road opening for the likes of Medeski, Martin & Wood, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Lucinda Williams and Gov't Mule. On Shorty--comprising all covers but with uniquely modern treatments--the band simultaneously channels crusty rural blues, shake-a-tail-feather electric mojo and psychedelicized Southern Rock-cum-jamband boogie, serving up such treats as Burnside's droning "Po Black Maddie," Kimbrough's trancelike epic "All Night Long" and Mississippi Fred McDowell's "Shake 'Em on Down."
"Because the music on the album was developed live over the last three years, when we made the record we knew how we wanted to lay it out," explains Dickinson. "It was trickier than we thought, getting that spontaneous sound down on tape. But we did our best. It was definitely a tribute to the music of the Hill Country part of Mississippi. The thing about the Hill Country that blew my mind, when I realized what was going on, about eight years ago, God, this is contemporary modern country blues, and it's happening right in front of our eyes. I just couldn't believe it! Because I grew up on the same thing everybody else did--Chicago blues, Delta blues, stuff like that.
"For the next album, the plan is to have originals on it. Over the last few years I've tried to write 'in the tradition.' The Hill Country blues, it's really a singular type of style. There's not really chord progressions or turnarounds; it's a more mysterious, trance, open-ended style. More primitive. And the poetry, the words are different too. So I've got a lot of songs like that, and the trick is, now, to approach 'em like the other songs. We hope that our dad will produce it--we really want to develop the sound more in the studio this time."
For the time being, though, road work remains the Allstars' main agenda. It's what they love best, logging upwards of 200 gigs a year. Later this month they'll appear at several of the annual massive outdoor festivals in Europe; back in the States, on September 17, they'll have a high-profile slot at Farm Aid.
Dickinson points out that as a band, they just do what comes naturally onstage. "We might even be a better festival band than a club band sometimes! Chris and I say whatever crazy shit we think of, and I'll animate the rhythmic accents, like move my arm and shoulder a little more or something like that. Some guys want to put on a big show and freak out with their body, but I think if you're jumping and banging around you can't play as well. And I really concentrate on what I'm doing."
Recently the Allstars expanded to a quartet, adding R.L. Burnside's kid Gary on second guitar to enhance the live sound, particularly on numbers such as "All Night Long," which steers across dueling-guitars turf in classic Duane Allman-Dicky Betts fashion. (Dickinson: "He's a great, great guitarist, and he can also play drums, so Cody can get up and play guitar, too, on some songs.") Due to an illness in the family, however, Burnside had to return home to Mississippi and may or may not have rejoined the tour by the time the Allstars hit Tucson.
Getting back to the whole shuteye issue for a moment, sleep--or, specifically, the lack of it--played a major part in another closely-watched Allstars gig this past March at the South By Southwest music industry festival. Hotly tipped as the place to be in Austin that Saturday evening and subsequently raved about in Rolling Stone by esteemed scribe David Fricke ("...made the old bones of rural Southern blues dance with hot vigor and brash invention...manic cottonfield psychedelia"), the midnight set at the Continental Club capped, for the band, a pretty grueling itinerary.
Recalls Dickinson, "We'd been on the road for five weeks, and we'd just come from Colorado that day, like 22 hours straight into Austin. We only got a couple of hours' rest, then we went to this big dinner with our manager (Tucsonan Michael Lembo) and all the record company people, then we went and did the show. We were just trashed! So sleep-deprived. But it was good because people liked it--even though I just remember it as being loud!
"Then after the Austin show we drove back to Memphis that night!" He laughs. "It's brutal, man! But we were already so tired, what was the point? We had just one day off before we were starting another tour to the Northeast. We were ready to go on home."