North Mississippi Allstars: Boogie Knights
“Our friend Seasick Steve knows our whole history and he said to me, ‘You’re the one, boy, the link,’” Luther recalls. “He said, ‘You have to keep it primitive and hold up your end of the bargain by taking it to the kids and making the blues attractive again.’ I realized I had not been holding up my end of the deal. The masters took me in and taught me so much—how to tour, how to keep the dance floor packed—and I had gotten caught up in my own songwriting trip. We’ve really learned how to put everything in its proper place. Doing solo records and projects has allowed me to streamline what the Allstars should be. If I have some folk songs, there’s no need to force them into the Allstars just because I wrote them.”
The first song that they recorded for World Boogie was an updated version of the blues classic “Rollin’ And Tumblin’,” with Luther laying down the main riff on a two-string diddley bow.
“We were doing an in-store appearance in North Carolina and my friend handed me a homemade coffee can two- string diddley bow guitar, and I just tuned it up and started playing ‘Rollin’ And Tumblin’,’” Luther says with a laugh. “We liked the way it came out and recorded it at our home studio, which we call the Zebra Ranch Electric Church and Fellowship Hall.
“That was the start of this record, though we didn’t know it at the time,” he continues. “We released it as a single and were thinking that that’s what we would do: release singles.”
They shifted their focus once again when Cody, who has a growing interest in photography, recorded a video for the song, and the process jump-started a desire to record a song cycle that would be a “complete cultural statement.” (Cody eventually cut videos for four of the songs, which can be found at www.nmallstars.com.)
“I’m real big on progress,” Cody says. “I don’t want to be stuck or static. When I see something that’s dynamic, I get excited and that’s how we try to push forward.”
Photo: Andrew Scott Blackstein
When the band hit the road again, they began screening Cody’s films behind them and continued to expand their footage, bringing cameraman Shelby Baldock out on the road.
“He filmed some stuff for us and we said, ‘We’re leaving on tour tomorrow. You have to come with us.’ It adds so much,” recalls Luther.
Every night, Baldock watches the band from the side of the stage and keeps the film synced and ever creative, often including local footage shot that afternoon. The results provide a mesmerizing backdrop. “It really helps the audience’s attention span,” says Luther.
“It doesn’t really influence me—I can’t see it. But I can feel how it influences the audience and the vibe. It keeps their eyes on us, on the stage.”
Cody picks up his brother’s thought, saying, “I got into photography and acting—I’ve been in G.I. Joe and some other films. I understood that we needed a visual element, and I wanted to stay away from laser lights. I hate stage lights. They make me sweat and look bad, and the projections allow us to mostly play in the darkness and to give people the multi-sensory experience they are so used to having. I love that we’re projecting.”
His thoughts race as he continues: “We’re coming to the future, but in such an old school way that it’s really the past, which is just perfect for us. Not only does it add a new dimension but it tells a story—and it looks cool. For instance, in the song ‘All Night Long,’ the movie shows concrete steps and bushes and it looks cool, but it’s deeper than that—it’s Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint. Obviously, most people don’t know that, but I still think they feel it, that it adds to the vibe.”
The Dickinsons' recent interactions with a trio of musical titans profoundly impacted them. Robert Plant, whose project Band Of Joy they opened for in 2011 and who also plays harmonica on World Boogie; Phil Lesh, who had the brothers play his San Rafael, Calif. venue Terrapin Crossroads and featured them in his revolving groups; and Butch Trucks, The Allman Brothers drummer who the Dickinsons worked with at the Roots Rock Revival camp last summer.
“These guys are giants of rock and roll and they’ve become friends and role models,” says Luther. “Touring with Phil and Plant and getting the chance to see them up close has been incredibly inspiring and instructive. They work really, really hard with total dedication to the music.”
Cody jumps in: “It’s a serious business and they take it very seriously.”
Luther nods his head in agreement and continues. “We were on tour opening for Plant when he was just doing his first shows with the Band Of Joy. And he was putting them through the paces, really making them work and learning a wide repertoire, some of which they didn’t even play. I think he wanted them to have the same music under their fingertips. And what Phil does— flying all these musicians in, working all day learning songs and arrangements, then playing shows at night, then starting all over again with a new crew— requires an incredible amount of work, patience and dedication.”