Jim Dickinson Loves Rock and Roll
When do you remember first creating music with Luther and Cody as musical peers?
The summer he was 14, I can’t remember what project I was working on day in and day out, and he had some songs he wanted to demo. We had done some things together, just playing around with the four-track. So I gave him the four-track, well probably the eight-track by then, and said demo these up and play them for me. It was four or five songs one of which was just so good I realized that, ok, I gotta stop and pay attention. And we went in the studio, the Sam Phillips studio with Roland Janes, which is where we started the new album—it’s like the way you begin, a classic process—and as we were cuttin’ these demos I saw some weaknesses in both of them that they both needed to work on and I figured the best way to do it was to play with them. So we started the family band which we called The Hardly Can Playboys. Started doing festivals when Cody was 12. He was so little, you couldn’t see him over the cymbals. We had a sax player that we still use and a bass player that had been playin’ with me. We played the first of the Memphis Folk and Heritage Festival which was where Luther met Otha Turner for the first time. That was how it all started. I always swore that I would never play with my kids because it’s such a redneck thing to do but it just turned in the way to do it. And then, hell they’re so good, they got to be better than my band and then got to be part of my band. The last three or four Mudboy & the Neutrons gigs we played my boys were the rhythm section. That was a fruition of a dream for both me and them. That’s largely what this new record is about, it’s about the guitar player from Mudboy & the Neutrons who was murdered who was a big influence on Luther.
You’ve said the people make records out of a primal urge, that it’s a fear of death. You’ve also said the movement—the desire to capture a moment—compels us to record.
The thing about movement… it’s like Thomas Wolfe talking about the back of the train. You stand on the back of the train, you see everything focusing at the horizon away from you. That’s the desire to recapture. What recording really does, though it’s not as true when you’re using computers of course, but if you think about tape recording, you’re literally making time into space. I think people understand that, intuitively, when they record, especially primitive people. There’s something that they grasp instantly that’s appealing about it. Of course, the artistic concept is to seaze the moment and repeat it but the producer manipulates the moment and it makes it almost diabolical. And it’s why you need one.
You said it was more evident in primitive recordings…
Not that it’s more evident, it’s just that I think primitive people understand the unnatural process intuitively more readily than a sophisticated, urban person who would accept it as kind of an everyday thing. It’s utterly unnatural. What you’re doing is sitting in the control room and listening to music played back. Ok, it’s an illusion. There’s no music there. Plus, it’s coming out of two black boxes and you’re hearing it all over the room. You hear a stereo signal which itself is an illusion. You are manufacturing an illusion that is what you’re doing. You do it by a series of tricks. You can certainly make a documentary recording but that’s not what a producer does.
You’ve produced everyone from Big Star to The Replacements to Mudhoney to Toots Hibbert. They’re all pretty divergent but is there an underlying philosophy you bring to all your productions? Or is each a separate case?
I like to say everything from rockabilly to reggae. Yeah, they ask what part of it is mine and I’ll them the space between the notes which I fight for. The music has to talk to me. It’s not just a scattershot. I’ll do anything that talks to me and the songs, individually, literally speak to me. Some of ‘em say a lot, some of ‘em don’t say very much. But if I see a door, if I see a way in, if I think I can improve it, if I think I can lead it a little bit. Loosen up the groove, lean it to the left, that’s what I do. I get accused of going for the quirks. Yeah, that’s what I do. That’s exactly what I do. I also get accused of doing dark material. What I think it is, is that people bring me their dark material because I don’t really seek it out. It seeks me out. But it is the space between the notes that is the similarity. If you listen to enough of my stuff, it is sort of there. Things kind of appeared to leak out of my mixes. I think good music shoots sparks and I try and put a magnifying glass on the sparks. I’m not trying to make a documentary, I’m not trying to take a picture. I’m trying to draw a cartoon.
You were part of the famous Muscle Shoals studio musicians group who worked with Aretha Franklin and countless others in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
I would just show up down there. I was never one of them. But when things dried up in Memphis there’s always something happening in Shoals. I’ve spent some years driving back and forth kind of pursuing the studio scene. As a studio musician, frankly that’s what I enjoy the most. I don’t get to do as much anymore ‘cause that kind of situation has sort of dried up and blown away. But the old school Southern rhythm section technique of recording is what I understand best. What I frankly enjoy the most. But you know, to do what I do, for as long as I’ve done it, you got to do it all. I engineered, I wrote, I played, I did whatever they asked me. If I could do it, I said yes. I’m like a two-dollar whore on Saturday night; the phone rings and I just say “yes.”
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