By Jim Morrison
Luther Dickinson has his talented fingers in so many projects. His solo records. A stint with The Black Crowes. Work on an album with ex-Replacement Tommy Stinson’s group, Bash and Pop. And, of course, playing and touring with his brother, Cody, and their Grammy-winning group, The North Mississippi Allstars.
The brothers each bring their passions to the Allstars. Cody loves recording, producing and engineering. “He’s in the lab every day,” Luther says.
Luther, meanwhile, describes music like food, something he needs every day. He wrote for a couple of hours on the morning of our interview.
For a long time, he says he tried to direct those prolific songwriting sessions to one outlet or another. That changed with 2014’s “Rock ‘n Roll Blues.” The brothers originally recorded the set as an Allstars album.
“A mistake we used to make was we would filter every idea an experiment into the one band,” he says. After they recorded the disc, Cody and their management came to Luther. This is not, they said, a North Mississippi Allstars project. This is a solo project.
“They were right,” he says. “And it opened my mind. It freed us to do anything and everything apart from the band, which made the band more powerful. There was no compromise.”
“Cody can do his stuff. I can do my stuff. Then we come together. It’s always best when it’s organic when there’s the least amount of agenda,” he adds.
They’ve recorded more than 25 songs for a new Allstars record. “We’re throwing them on the canvas to see what will stick,” he says. “You really can’t tell.”
They bring those new songs and two decades of recording to Boathouse Live in Newport News on April 4.
Their latest release was a side project for Cody, remixing songs for Blues Dance Music, a “sonically experimental” EP that takes their signature blues, rock, and gospel and applies dance hall beats and features Sharde Thomas, Rev Sekou, Al Kapone, Frayser Boy and DJ Spanish Fly. “That was my brother’s passion project,” Luther says. “He had the vision. I cannot take any credit for it.”
“I adore it. I think it sounds contemporary. It’s not in me to do that. I don’t have that desire, but I sure appreciate his ability to do that.”
Yes, he answers, the brothers aren’t afraid to leap any barrier, try any genre. “The trick about barriers,” he adds, “is you go too far and then you pull back a little bit. Even with Blues Dance Music, he went too far in his own mind and pulled back. ”
Luther describes himself as “old fashioned to a fault.” “What I like and what I strive to do is a type of music that is very naturalistic, almost jazz or field recording style production,” he explains. “That’s a great thing about being in a band with your brother. We allow each other to do our things. We’re so different. The chemistry when we get together is unique. We can never do by ourselves alone what we do when we get together. ”
The last full album they produced together was 2017’s “Prayer for Peace,” a mix of originals and covers of a few of their favorites including R.L. Burnside and Mississippi Fred McDowell. They recorded it fast and loose, just the way Luther likes, in five different studios while on the road.
“We really got into enjoying recording on the road for many different reasons,” he says. “For one, it’s a great utilization of our time when we have a day off or even an afternoon off. We’d get together and knock it out. You go in for five or six hours and just play and then go back on tour. Then you see what you got and sort it out. It was a really fun way to do it.
“Also, we love recording studios. We grew up in recording studios. To use different ones in different places with different sounds and different vibes is a real treat.”
They grew up in the blues lands of McDowell, Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. But they also were part of that Memphis rock sound of the 1960s. Their father, Jim, released solo records and played with bands backing Aretha Franklin, Dion, Sam & Dave, Jerry Jeff Walker, and others. He famously played piano on The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and later produced artists as varied as Big Star, Toots and the Maytals, The Replacements, Willy DeVille and others.
There was always an analog tape machine and microphones at home. Their father also had a studio, Zebra Ranch. Mojo Nixon, the guys from Green on Red, and others would have dinner with the family and sometimes jam in the basement with the brothers.
Luther says he learned the finer points of songwriting from his dad. He works not to get in the way of that initial rush of ideas, to embrace that moment of creation and not self-edit, milking it. Sometimes that results in a song. Sometimes it’s the door that opens the way to a song and is discarded.
That’s where his father steps in, even now. “When I was young, I was writing wild songs. I was uneducated. I had no concept of writing patterns or syllable counts or iambic pentameter. My parents were educated. My dad was very word-based,” he says. “He taught me a process of editing. He would collaborate, get them into shape, get the melodies together. He would teach me about rhyming and syllable counts. Just proper songwriting. He passed away in 2009 and doing it now is second nature.”
“I spent a couple of hours writing this morning. It’s like an act of collaboration, communion, with him,” he adds. “It’s really cool.”
The album in the works is titled “Fight for Freedom.” Yes, that’s a message.
“I try not to preach or tell people what to do,” he says. “But I do believe in leading by example. I am on a platform around people every night singing and expressing ideas and putting currents in the air. I feel it’s possible to tell people how I feel, what I stand for, what I believe.”
Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of blues, dance, music. He grew up with the blues, but that doesn’t mean he dwells on the sadness, one of the many things he learned from artists like Burnside growing up in Mississippi.
“The thing I learned from R.L.,” he says, “was he could sing the saddest music with a smile on his face. It was all about dancing. If you played a function in north Mississippi and cleared the dance floor, you were done.”
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North Mississippi All-Stars
Boathouse Live! (Newport News, VA)