The North Mississippi Allstars are Up and Rolling

Cody and Luther Dickinson continue to keep the Delta tradition alive on their 10th studio LP

North Mississippi Allstars 2019

The North Mississippi Allstars released their Grammy winning debut, Shake Hands with Shorty, 19 years ago. The band has its roots in the music Luther Dickinson (guitar, vocals) and his brother Cody (drums, keyboards, percussion, vocals) began playing when they were children.

“We played our first show with my dad when I was in first grade and Cody was in kindergarten, but we were just messing around,” Luther tells Rock & Roll Globe. “We got serious about it when we were teenagers. Music was all I ever I wanted to do.”

Luther and Cody are the sons of Jim Dickinson, a producer, session player and sideman, known for his work with The Rolling Stones, Big Star, Aretha Franklin and Toots and The Maytals, to mention a few. While they were growing up, fife and drum legend Otha Turner and bluesmen RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough lived nearby and welcomed Luther and Cody into their extended musical families.

“We’d sit on Otha’s front porch and play music with his granddaughter Sharde Thomas and Cedric Burnside, RL’s grandson. When we started the band, our idea was to bring together the best players we knew, black and white. We called ourselves the Allstars because we wanted to play and record with the Mississippi musicians we knew, regardless of race. Just before the band got off the ground, RL invited me to tour with him. It really opened my eyes. I’d never been outside of our little circuit before.”

 

VIDEO: RL Burnside with Luther Dickinson live 1997

Before Luther left on the Burnside tour in 1997, a photographer from Texas named Wyatt McSpadden showed up. He wanted to take some shots of Mississippi hill musicians. Luther and Cody took him to the homes of Turner, Burnside and Kimbrough, as well as Kimbrough’s nightclub, Junior’s Place. A few years ago, McSpadden sent the Dickinson brothers the photos he took more than 20 years ago. Those images inspired the new North Mississippi Allstars album, Up and Rolling.

“We were working on an album already,” Luther said. “We had a couple of tracks down, ‘cause we record all the time on the road.  You never know what’s gonna stick, so we cut everything we can, when we can. Those photos were evocative of a life changing time for me, just before our first gig as a band and first album. We’d fallen into a community – the generation of musicians from famous families that were our age. That’s where we learned everything.

“Then the first record came out and changed our lives completely. We hit the road full time and never slowed down. While we were on the road, all the elders passed on – our father, RL, Junior and Otha, who was like a grandfather to me. When I look at those photos, I can smell and hear what our life was like back then. They inspired me, not into recreating the music of the past, but making a soundtrack to accompany the photos. I imagined what could have been playing on a car radio back then and paired it with what Mississippi sounds like now.”

Luther said Up and Rolling was assembled over the past two or three years. “We recorded 24 or 25 songs for the album, picking songs that celebrated Mississippi lyrically, musically and groove-wise – songs about hanging out in Mississippi, or the south in general. We call it roots music ‘cause it’s not just blues, or rock’n’roll.

“I’m not into labels. They’re for people trying to sell music, but music is free. The labels are a byproduct of racism, from a time when people said music had to be one thing or another. In further generations, people will stop trying to put titles on everything. I think about my parents and grandparents, and what they grew up with, never getting to know the people that lived up the road from them. I see the innocent colorblindness of my kids in the playground, playing with children of all backgrounds. It’s nothing like it was when I was a kid. It’s awesome when I see them playing and it shows hate is bred out of ignorance. It’s not natural, it’s taught. I remember RL telling me, ‘If you got ten fingers, you can play the guitar.’ That’s all there is to it.”

North Mississippi Allstars Up and Rolling, New West 2019

Like most of their albums, Up and Rolling is full of tunes that will get feet moving and hearts pounding.  “Call That Gone” opens the album, with Cody laying down a beat that combines Otha Turner’s ageless fife and drum groove, with the second line rhythms of New Orleans. Luther sings a spirited call-and-response vocal with Sharde Thomas. “We’ve been experimenting with that Mississippi meets New Orleans bounce for a while,” Luther says. “It’s something we want to get deeper into.”

“Up and Rolling” is a bluesy stomp with a funky backbeat that celebrates LSD, weed and mushrooms. “Out on the Road” is a traditional sounding blues rock tune, with a lead vocal by Cedric Burnside, while “Living Free” is a gospel-like protest song that tosses a brickbat at our current commander in chief, without mentioning his name. The record also includes covers of songs by Otha Turner, Burnside and Little Walter, as well as “What You Gonna Do?” by Pop Staples, with a guest vocal from Mavis Staples.

The album was produced by Luther and his brother Cody and, like their live shows, the tunes balance jamming and concise arrangements. “We like to record long and loose and tighten it up in post production. We know what sounds good. We may play a song live for months or years, but when it comes time to record, we keep it as loose as possible. At the same time, we keep it tight and lock in the hypnotic repetition, but we don’t force it. We know how to navigate the difference between the two and we know what our sound is. It takes discipline to keep it tight, but when its time to open up, we’re free to take off.”

 

AUDIO: North Mississippi Allstars Up and Rolling (full album)

j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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