It’s a family thing

Brothers of North Mississippi Allstars bring their modern take on rootsy rock and blues to TA next week.

Luther and Cody Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars 390 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Luther and Cody Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars 390
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s not very surprising that Luther and Cody Dickinson ended up being musicians. After all, their childhood playgrounds were the Memphis recording studios where their late father Jim Dickinson used to ply his trade. Dickinson played piano on The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and on Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind and was the city’s most famous record producer, working with the likes of Ry Cooder, Alex Chilton, Jason and the Scorchers and The Replacements.
“We wouldn’t necessarily go to work with him, but we would always meet lots of musicians that he worked with,” explained Luther Dickinson from his home in Hernando, Mississippi, where the 39-year-old guitarist was spending a few days in between shows with The North Mississippi Allstars, the roots-rocking band he and his brother founded over 10 years ago.
“They would come over for dinner or just to visit. I remember eating with Mojo Nixon, Green on Red, The Replacements, and meeting Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner.
That was really exciting, but maybe more inspiring in a way was getting exposed to the community of musicians our father knew in Memphis.”
Already well versed in garage rock aesthetics (at age 14, a young Luther recorded a guitar track for the 1987 album by The Replacements, Pleased to Meet Me), the brothers received a different kind of musical education when the Dickinson family moved to northern Mississippi. There they began to investigate the country blues of local artists like Furry Lewis and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Those wide-ranging influences coalesced to inform the music of the Allstars – from their rock edge and alt country tinges to the southern road-ready jamming and boogie blues.
“Mississippi plays a huge role in how our music sounds,” said Dickinson. “My father introduced us to some of the original bluesmen like Furry Lewis and Robert Wilkins, and they were all friends. But then on my own, in the early 1990s, I began hearing people like [fife player] Othar Turner, RJ Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, and it blew my mind. I didn’t think that I would ever experience modern- day electric country blues, and I became fascinated with it. Eventually I was able to partake of it with the North Mississippi Allstars and we’re just keeping that tradition alive.”
And they’re doing it very well. The Allstars, (Luther on guitar, Cody on drums with bassist Chris Chew) released their debut Shake Hands With Shorty in 2000 and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album, as did their next effort, 2001’s 51 Phantom.
They also acquired a well-deserved reputation as a smoking-hot live band – somewhere between jam-band nirvana and punky roots rock – and have spent most of the past decade backing up that reputation.
Local audiences will be able to judge for themselves when the Allstars make their Israeli debut on July 10 at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv.
Dickinson knew he was destined to make music, but he said it was his younger brother Cody who was the born player in the family.
“I didn’t really have a natural affinity for making music, it was a gradual creative process,” he said, adding that writing his own songs was the breakthrough moment for him.
“But Cody, he’s one of those guys for whom it easy from the beginning. He plays guitar better than I do. I learned so much from him – we started out playing as a duo when we were 11 or 12, and we’ve been playing together ever since. Knowing what you want to do and pursuing that your whole life has its advantages. I’ve know a lot of talented musicians, though, who couldn’t find their way.”
THE ALLSTARS have been the Dickinson brothers’ main focus – including backing John Hiatt on occasion and touring last year with Robert Plant’s Band Of Joy, which prompted the former Led Zeppelin singer to proclaim “Give me a great theater and the North Mississippi Allstars kicking things off and I’m gone.”
But the brother have also enjoyed musical endeavors away from the band – Cody with the acoustic Hill Country Review, and Luther branching out in a multitude of avenues, including joining The Black Crowes in 2007 as their lead guitarist.
“It was a little awkward at first trying to figure out how to keep our band together but not tour as much to allow us to take part in these other projects,” said Luther.
“It’s hard to be in one band year after year and rely only on that – it’s healthy in a way to have more variety, though there can be repercussions.”
Dickinson even found the time to release three separate albums earlier this year unrelated to the Allstars or Black Crowes – a solo acoustic instrumental album, Hambone’s Meditations; Go On Now, You Can’t Stay Here by the Wandering, an impromptu traditional folk-blues quintet; and Old Times There... by the South Memphis String Band, a four-piece band that also includes the Allstar’s bassist and star in his own right, Alvin Youngblood Hart, who will also be opening up the Tel Aviv show with his own set.
Dickinson said that the albums are an expression of his true love – acoustic music.
“I love rock & roll, but I’m really a folkie at heart. I don’t even have any amplifiers at home,” he said, adding that he and Cody are polar opposites when it comes to their approach to recording.
“I’m extremely old fashioned, I really love those lo-fi Alan Lomax-style folk recordings, and Cody’s extremely modern regarding production style and aesthetics,” he said. “He’s more like my father, a really good record producer. We complement each other well.”
The brothers’ approaches met in the middle in 2010 when the Allstars gathered at their family-owned Zebra Studios in Hernando along with family friends like Cooder, Mavis Staples and legendary session man Spooner Oldham, to record the album Keys to the Kingdom, a tribute to their father, who died the previous year.
The album proved to be their most realized work, a celebration of life and of the importance of family. According to Luther, their father had always told them, “You need to be playing music together. You are better together than you will ever be apart.” It’s advice Luther and Cody Dickinson are taking to heart.