Delta Hipster Blues: Talking with the North Mississippi All Stars' Luther Dickinson

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:55

    There are no originals on Shorty, but the boys sure know which well to draw their water from. There are no fewer than four Fred McDowell tunes and three R.L. Burnside compositions here. Ninety-two-year-old fife-and-drum scion Otha Turner plays on the record?no surprise given that Luther recorded and plays on Otha's two CDs. Other luminaries who play on the record include Alvin Youngblood Hart, the Tate Country Singers and the Harmony Four. The three All Stars play just fine by themselves, however?their music raw and ragged and did I mention it's smart as hell? Just the way that they change an approach to a song in the midst of it?from rough to ragged and back again?is so cool. This band does rock (and shimmy and wobble, and all that) in such a way that fans from every side of the blues-rock continuum?60s psyche-oriented blues-rock, down-and-dirty jook joint stuff and postmodern punk-ass blues rock?can for one, shining instant be united as one under the bright glow of this self-described "world boogie."

    I spoke recently to Luther Dickinson.

    I like how all the songs on your CD are traditional tunes. We just wanted to get that out of the way, and to show people what we play live.

    Because it's the most fun? Exactly. And those songs are so strong. It's really hard to write in that vein, especially lyrically. It's unbelievably hard to write stuff like that?you're dealing with poetry from a forgotten language almost, and it's not even from my culture of birth. And if you notice, we didn't take the publishing for the arrangements, which a lot of people have done in the past, you know what I'm saying? So if we sell any records, they will be paid. When we started this band we were collaborating a lot with Otha's drummers, and I was playing a lot with Otha himself. And it was more of a collective thing; our lineup changes a lot, we might be a trio or a four-piece with Garry Kimbrough on bass and Cedric Burnside on double-drums. We're just kind of representing everybody. We've been working with Junior Kimbrough's two sons a lot, Ken and Garry.

    Music really runs in families there?you've got the Burnsides, yourselves, the Kimbroughs. It really does. It's bizarre?and there's Otha's family, too. All the ladies singing gospel backup vocals on our record are his daughters and granddaughters. The next Otha record?God willing?will be a gospel record made with his whole family.

    Have you heard that Robert Belfour record on Fat Possum?

    Yes. That's hot, it's real. That's the thing about the hills, man?he's 60 years old and this is his debut, you know? Burnside just made his fortune recently, as a touring musician. People say, "Why, this is the hill country resurgence," but man, this is modern music! It's not urban at all?nothing urban about it. It's a modern rural country blues.

    When people say the hill country and speak of Mississippi hill music, where exactly are they talking about? It's south of Memphis. You know the Delta starts at the Peabody in Memphis, but that runs along the west side, along the river. But you go up the bluff, and you're in the hills. All the way across to the other side, east of the Delta. You go back to [Mississippi guitarist-singer] Jessie Mae Hemphill's grandfather, Sid. He was like the original musician from the hills?and they had a huge musical family, as well. I heard this one song on a Lomax recording of Jessie Mae's mother, it's unbelievable! Have you heard that?

    That's on Sounds of the South. Yeah, exactly. And then there's this guy, Eli Green, from the hills. There's two recordings of him on the first Arhoolie McDowell record, You've Got to Move [currently in print as Mississippi Delta Blues]. I always knew there had to have been a link between the Delta and the hills earlier on, because Burnside made a direct connection with Muddy Waters in Chicago when he moved up there, when Muddy Waters was still playing in open G tuning. Before he got the band, you know, before Chess, before he started playing in standard. Burnside plays a lot of stuff directly influenced by that style of Muddy Waters. But you know, before that I knew there had to have been a connection between the Delta guys?you know, they traveled constantly?and the hill country guys who were more family oriented and who were farmers. And it was this guy, Eli Green! He grew up with Charlie Patton and Son House, but then he moved up to the hills. And he taught Fred McDowell a lot of stuff and he taught Burnside and Kimbrough. Kenny Kimbrough remembers him and says that he was a magician, that he had a briefcase that nobody but one person could look at?if you opened it and looked in it, it would blind you. He plays like Son House, that primitive, really rockin' stuff.

    You and your brother have played with black musicians since you were kids. Have you ever run into weirdness from racist assholes in the audience, or at a truck stop somewhere? No, it's really cool. From what I've seen, man, everybody has always gotten along really great?and I myself have never witnessed any disturbance, knock on wood. We were living in Tennessee, right on the state line in Marshall County, going to this small country school. It was all white kids, and Cody said, "This sucks! I want to go to public school." And we moved to Mississippi. We were getting older and it really was a small little country town?Rosville, TN. Cody was doing rap projects when he was 14... I think Sam Philips deserved a Nobel Peace Prize; he did more for integration and freeing the world of that mindset than most people. I'm sure there are a lot of racist people everywhere, but music has just always brought us together. We just grew up that way. I've always admired black culture and black music and black talent.

    So how do you follow Shorty? What's your next record gonna be like? Well, that's funny, man, because I've got this side of me that wants to get some more samplers and start firing more shit and using more loops and doing all this crazy stuff. Cody already does them. He's got two different samplers that he's got onstage?he's firin' shit all the time.

    He loops himself while he's playing, and plays along with it? Yes. And he's got an electric washboard that's really cool, with a wah-wah. Man! It sounds like psychedelic satisfaction, you know what I'm sayin'? It has a huge frequency filter. But I decided I don't want to get myself in that trick bag. I don't want to have anything that I can't stand there and play with my guitar and sing. So even though we're going to stretch it out, we're not going to take it too far. I'll probably leave that up to Cody, but there's no way to tell. I'll probably change my mind and freak out too. It's all going to be original. But I've got it; I've got some songs that I feel real good about. They're very simple, traditional-style songs. Another thing is, we're not going to produce it. And we're not going to mix it. Our dad will. That's going to be a great burden lifted off of us.

    Your family seems really happy and well-adjusted; what's up with that? (laughing) Well, man, we are. We do get along well.

    Were you in the studio with your dad a lot? Is that where you picked up a lot of this? We were. He just knows so much. We built this studio, and we started working on his new solo record, and he taught us how to use the facility. When I was really young, I always loved tape machines. There were four-tracks around that used Fostex reel-to-reels and stuff. We've been recording all our life, really.