The North Mississippi Allstars burst onto the scene in 2000 with Shake Hands with Shorty. Their stellar, Grammy-nominated, self-produced debut took traditional Mississippi Hill Country Blues songs by legends such as R.L. Burnside and Fred McDowell and reinvigorated them with a raw brand of electrifying 21st century guitar-bass-drums power. In 2001, NMA expanded their sound with a taut collection of mostly originals that is clearly blues-based and draws from the band’s more modern influences, ranging from Jimi Hendrix to ZZ Top. In the last couple of years, NMA has also managed to tour relentlessly, playing hundreds of sold-out shows across the country that have garnered rave reviews in publications such as The New York Times and jazz bible, Downbeat Magazine.
Music has always been paramount in the lives of founding NMA members Luther and Cody Dickinson. Their gifted father, Jim Dickinson, has a list of credits longer than Mike Tyson’s rap sheet that includes playing piano on the Rolling Stones’ 1971 classic Sticky Fingers and Bob Dylan’s celebrated 1997 comeback Time Out of Mind. As a producer, the elder Dickinson is responsible for gems by acts ranging from Ry Cooder to Big Star to The Replacements.
“When he was working with The Replacements (on Pleased to Meet Me), that influenced me pretty hard,” said Luther, 29, with a laid-back Southern drawl.
Luther fielded questions as he drove through Memphis – the music mecca in which his father first made his reputation as an R&B session player. Like his venerable dad, NMA’s lead vocalist/guitarist Luther has very eclectic tastes in music – his first band, DDT (Dickinson, Dickinson, Paul Taylor) made its reputation thrashing clubs throughout the South with a searing brand of punk rock.
“We (DDT) were just playing young teenage rock ‘n’ roll, metal, pop … whatever came to us,” said Luther.
Before long though, the spirit of the musically rich Mississippi Hill Country – home to great blues men such as Fred McDowell – began to tug at the sleeve of Luther and DDT’s “altar-ego,” and the band Gutbucket emerged. It featured the same members as DDT but in a different setting that included acoustic guitars, jug and washboard.
“That was our jug band,” said Luther. “It got to a point with DDT where I just got tired of rocking all the time. In my early 20s, I started finding out about people like (David) Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. I grew up down there in Mississippi, but I didn’t know what was going on for a long time. I wasn’t hip. But, once I got into to it, it just changed my life. It got to where I wanted to start another band. It was the same musicians, but we all just started playing traditional Hill Country stuff.”
In following his muse, Luther formed The North Mississippi Allstars with brother Cody (drums) and childhood friend Chris Chew on bass. After building a solid reputation touring with groups such as the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Luther and Co. were offered a record deal with their current label, Tone-Cool.
“We were just so relieved,” said Luther. “We had waited our whole lives to just have a record deal. We were so excited to be finally doing it. It was hard work recording that record … we produced it ourselves, but we accomplished what we wanted to do and learned a lot doing it … it took us awhile.”
Although it was their debut, the members of NMA were well prepared when they went into the studio to produce their first LP.
“I think the fact that we waited so long, and the fact that we had toured a couple years before putting out a record, it all just added up, ” said Luther. “We could have put out a record years ago, but I think the fact that we waited just let us mature and be ready.”
Luther is very proud to be a part of the great music tradition of Memphis and Mississippi that has spawned so many memorable and influential artists.
“It is really a great honor,” said Luther. “In a way I think we represent so many people in our community, like the blues community, in North Mississippi and the rock ‘n’ roll community in Memphis, Tenn. We grew up surrounded and embraced by this community of musicians, so it’s almost like it’s not just us. We’re always together.”
Luther explains that the Hill Country sound he propagates is the by-product of a myriad of styles, both old and new.”It’s definitely blues, but it’s not traditional blues,” said Luther. “It’s primitive country blues, but it’s modern day. It’s like with R.L. Burnside, you have his 22-year-old grandson playing the shit out of drums, and he’s like a hip-hop guy. It’s a combination. We’re the MTV generation, and we got all kinds of different influences coming.”
Luther maintains that the main ingredient to the Hill Country style, the one element that differentiates it from other blues and roots rock styles is, its fun factor.
“It’s real dance oriented. It’s all about the rhythm,” said Luther. “It’s not just about moaning and groaning and complaining. It’s house-rocking party (music). It’s music to entertain. One man with a guitar can make the whole room dance. It’s real rhythmic.”
Despite the fact that Luther and his brother Cody produced their lauded debut, they brought in their father, Jim Dickinson, to help take some of the pressure off recording their sophomore release, 51 Phantom (2001).
“That was the great thing about having Dad in there to produce,” said Luther. “With him at the control board we could just play and write and record and not have to worry about (production duties). The first record we were just control freaks. With the second record, we just had a collection of songs, went in and played them.”
Luther said he enjoyed the atmosphere his father created.”He records really fast, spontaneously, a lot of first takes,” said Luther.
Another departure from their debut was the inclusion of originals on 51 Phantom. The Dickinson brothers had been playing many of the tunes since their DDT days, but had not felt ready to record them until an album of traditional blues was already released.
“We had been waiting, taking our time,” said Luther. “It was always the plan to lay the root down and come in later with the rock.”
Luther has no qualms about vacillating between rock, blues and everything in between.
“I think just about everything post-Hendrix is rock ‘n’ roll,” said Luther. “Besides the Hill Country Blues, I don’t think there’s much real, genuine blues left. We’re a rock ‘n’ roll band through and through – it just turns into rock ‘n’ roll. That’s just what happens. That’s what always happens.”
With the addition of guitarist DuWayne Burnside to the band (son of R.L. Burnside), NMA are now an interracial rock ‘n’ roll machine consisting of equal parts salt and pepper. Growing up in Mississippi, Luther said he was fortunate to be in an area of the state where race was not an issue.
“I gotta say, where we grew up is really an enlightened place,” said Luther. “There are other places that aren’t as enlightened. I’ve known Chris Chew (who is black) since we were in high school. We grew up together. We’re old friends.”
51 Phantom includes the civil rights song “Freedom Highway,” a tune the Dickinson brothers have been playing since before NMA took form. The song’s message is very important to them.
“I think by just walking on stage we are a social comment,” said Luther. “Music brings people together.”
Despite their success, Luther feels the same way about music today as he did as a youth performing on the side streets of Memphis and the little out-of-the-way juke joints of Mississippi.
“We play music that we like to hear, and we make records that we would like to listen to,” said Luther. “We don’t really try and please anybody with our music. It’s so great that people like what we do, and we have gotten away with it for so long. It’s a dream come true, we love what we do.”
The North Mississippi Allstars will be headlining the Tampa Bay Blues Fest Friday at Vinoy Waterfront Park in St. petersburg. The show runs from 3:30-10 p.m. Opening acts include: Sean Chambers, Tab Benoit and Tommy Castro. Single tickets are $20 and a three-day pass is $50. For more info call (727) 824-6163.
Contact Wade Tatangelo at email@example.com