Jim Dickinson Loves Rock and Roll
Jim Dickinson is a legend. You may know his sons more readily—Luther and Cody from the North Mississippi Allstars—but you’ve probably encountered their father more times then you’ve realized. As a sought-after producer (Big Star, The Replacements), session musician (Stones, Dylan) and sideman (Ry Cooder, Dixie Flyers), the elder Dickinson has seen it all and, most likely, done it, too. Recently completing production on a new Allstars album due out early next year, Dickinson, as always, had a few stories to share.
You’ve recorded several times with your sons, most recently for the live release Hill Country Review. You also produced their much-lauded Phantom 51. Is it harder or easier dealing with family in the studio?
Much harder. They know all my tricks. Much harder. The whole psycho-dynamic is different of course because I’m daddy and sometimes it’s harder and sometimes it’s not. It is definitely harder for me, I don’t know about them because they’ve never been produced by anyone else which I’ve tried to get ‘em to work with other people which is why I came back. I tried to get them to do Polaris with another producer and when they produced it themselves, I thought, “well hell, anything is better than that” because self-production is a myth. I thought my children knew better than that. You can’t be on both sides of the glass at once. When I produce myself, it’s a mistake.
Critics loved Phantom 51 and were a little taken aback by the slickness of the follow up Polaris.
They simply didn’t finish it. Believe me it was a sore topic. And you know, they moved to town [Memphis] and they left here [40 miles away in rural Mississippi] and they were experimenting with lifestyle and whatever and they simply didn’t finish the record. They got in over their heads and didn’t finish it. The mix doesn’t exist; it wasn’t mixed. Obviously I have some issues with it. You know, it was an attempt to do pop music which I advised them against.
What do you mean exactly that they left town?
Well they left here and moved into Memphis per say. We live about 40 miles south of Memphis in very much rural Mississippi and they lived in a trailer in front of my studio for years. They moved to town and made a record in town at the same time. Sounds like it. It was an experimental thing. I don’t know; so much of their music is about who they are and where they are from that Polaris was more of a fantasy. Frankly, it’s a two-headed monster and the first two—or three if you can actually count the other record—were Luther’s vision and Polaris was more of a shared vision, more of Cody’s vision. Cody’s the one with the pop sensibility. And it was more of his vision. You know, the drummers don’t have to finish, they just have to track!
You’ve said that your son Luther’s first word was “studio” and he slept with a guitar like a teddy bear when was four-years old.
[laughter] I tried to stop them at first and when I realized I couldn’t then I encouraged them. It just seemed, especially with Luther, a compulsion. He had to work for everything he’s got. He taught himself. He came to me and said, “teach me” and I said, “if I teach you, you’ll play like me.” And he taught himself. But Cody… he just started playing. He sat down at 12-years old and started playing like man. Damndest thing I ever saw. Jazz stuff. Stuff that I don’t even know where he heard it, much less learned it.
Just sort of in the bones.
Yeah. He said he would stay up at night and watch Anton Fig but it don’t sound like Anton Fig to me! [laughter]
You’ve said rock ‘n’ roll is self-taught. Why are you so adamant about that?
Everybody would play alike otherwise. I really do think it’s something you grow out of yourself and your environment; at least rock and roll is. It’s folk music. It comes up from the street. At least the good stuff does. It’s not that he learned without teachers. They both started out with John Evans from the original Box Tops and he was a very sympathetic, philosophic kind of teacher. Luther has studied with Shawn Lane who was a monster of the instrument. And a local jazz musician named Ed Finney who doesn’t even play in the Western scale. So I mean, it wasn’t that they weren’t taught, they just weren’t part of any teaching system. You know when I started playing, I got the Mel Bay chord book and never got off the third page. I still don’t know what the damn notes are and I’ve been playing the guitar for 55 years. I look at my hands and I tell what I’m doing which kept me honest.
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