North Mississippi Allstars: "Going Down South" (Relix Revisited)
From the December/January 2006 issue of Relix, here’s our feature on the North Mississippi Allstars. the group’s next album, Keys To The Kingdom, is set for a February 1 release.
“I remember laying there just wishing for a thought, just blank-minded. I burned so much energy that I think I just had to regenerate, recharge.” From behind the wheel of Casper, The North Mississippi Allstars’ tattered but trusty road warrior, Luther Dickson is relaying his worst rock and roll war story: a long, taxing acid trip from some 15 years ago.
“It was a normal weekend. I dosed with my brother and some other friends, and we jammed and recorded. At fist, I wasn’t scared, I was thinking, ‘_Eureka_!—I have reached the place of consciousness that we’re all trying to get to.’ But, in reality, I was just free-associating bullshit I could make any sense of.”
Right in the middle of it, DDT, Luther’s then-band with younger sibling and Allstars drummer Cody Dickinson and bassist Paul Taylor, played a gig at the Antenna Club in Memphis, before which Luther pointed to the symbols on the cover of a box of Marlboro Reds as the key to the universe—and he wasn’t joking. While half-laughing about it now, he’s still a little embarrassed by the memory: “I made an ass of myself in every worst cliché LSD rock-show indulgence way. I played awful, out of tune. I was saying all kinds of crazy shit. I was wearing a poncho with shit written on my belly underneath it and these big, buck-ass tennis shoes. I had this zit rising out of fuckin’ face.”
Speeding down the kudzu-lined, church-dotted backroads of North Mississippi, we’re heading to two of the area’s most storied spots: first to the former site of late bluesman Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint and then to the former home of Otha Turner, another blues hero who passed in 2003 at the age of 94. Both the men and the places have registered an immeasurable impact on Luther, who honors them on the best songs on the Allstars new disc, Electric Blue Watermelon.
It’s a bit of a trek to the ash-covered spot in Marshall County where Junior’s burned to its foundation, and as we wind our way through the hill country, Luther is outlining his evolution as a guitarist. As cringe-worthy as it is, that psychedelic experience is an important part of that story.
He remembers tripping hard for about a week, before his celebrated musician/producer father Jim Dickinson postponed work on Toy Caldwell’s eponymous album to basically tranquilize Luther and finally get him to sleep—a lack of which Luther blames for temporarily frying his brain. While Jim calls the experience the worst of his life, Luther, now 32, says it was by no means a near-death experience, and that he frankly enjoyed most of it—having believed he finally reached enlightenment.
It was a year before he felt completely normal again. At the end of that year was a pot of gold sorts, he says: “I had to re-teach myself a lot, because I lost a lot of continuity in my mind, like improvising a solo or whatever, and form—there was no form, structure or logic. It was just disjointed and scattered, as was my brain. But once I got my playing back together, it was better than it had been—the end result was so much smoother.
“I conquered something that I had been fighting all my life, in my personality and in my music,” he continues, while pulling up to Junior’s. “I just couldn’t break through. I had been playing guitar and I couldn’t get the sound I wanted to. I was too aggressive. I just couldn’t play the way I wanted to.”
Shifting Casper into park, Luther chuckles. “When I got better, I remember my dad saying, ‘Well, son, you’ve finally done it: You’ve reach the next stage of human evolution.’”
If you’ve never been there—or if you don’t have someone like Luther guiding the way—you would never noticed the break in the Crayola green shrubs along Highway 4 where Junior’s stood for years. Well, you might. Passing motorists must occasionally catch a little sun from the bottle tree that’s sprouted where the jukebox once rested. But you have to actually pull over and get out of your car to see the black ash-dusted concrete floor, which dips on the right side, where the Dickinson brothers would sometimes sit in with Kimbrough, or where Luther was sometimes treated to an impromptu lesson in Junior’s brand of raunch boogie.
Burning to the ground not long after Kimbrough’s death in 1998—in a controversial fire some suspect was lit by his beleaguered son Dave (local authorities didn’t respond to attempts to confirm or deny the rumor)—Junior’s was a haunt for everyone from such peers as the recently deceased R.L. Burnside to underage Ole Miss. coeds who imbibed here with ease. U2 and the Stones even made the trek. It was a place where hill country blues fans could drink and shout alongside pillars of the local blues scene, something akin to hanging out in a velvet rope- and ego-free Max’s Kansas City with Lou Reed. “In no way did Junior hold himself above anyone,” Luther says, lighting a cigarette. “He was a special person in the community. People would come here to dance on Sundays, and they loved R.L. and Junior so much—and they were one of them. It was all one community.”
To be sure, it’s a little sad to be standing in the club’s ashes, the frayed buzz of Kimbrough’s riffing replaced with waves of cricket chirping. As much as anyone, Luther misses Junior’s heyday, which he waxes nostalgic on in the Electric Blue Watermelon gem “Moonshine:” “The club burned down to the concrete floor/Old jukebox won’t play no more… I miss the moonshine and the old times/Sitting in with the house band and the bootleggers of the bottom land.”
Junior’s partially inspired Luther’s original concept for the Allstars, which he initially thought might develop into a hill country collective open to rotating cameos from members of the Burnside, Kimbrough and Turner families. While it’s never really became that, it may, however temporarily: Luther plans to make a bona fide hill country collaboration with all the above sometime in the near future. And that record would hopefully be complimented with an Allstars picnic/concert in North Mississippi, both sporting the spirit of the band’s celebrated Hill Country Revue at Bonnaroo 2004 (featuring a rare performance from Jim and Burnside’s final bow).
In a way, Electric Blue Watermelon, the band’s fourth album, insists that these collaborations need to happen, that their time has come. While written more than a year ago—long before the revered Burnside’s recent death—the album laments the change sweeping trough the hill country in the wake of the passings of legendary stalwarts like Kimbrough and Otha Turner. If the Dickinson boys moved to North Mississippi from nearby Tennessee just in time for the heyday of the hill country blues, that time has surely passed. Says Cody, “There’s no doubt about it, there’s a disturbance in the Force.”
Easing Casper up to Otha’s tin-roofed shack in Gravel Springs, Luther is turning heads. Like his father before him, he’s a throwback for sure, one who’s spent much of his life casually apprenticing under the hill country’s blues greats, none more so than fife and drum master Turner, who Luther recorded and produced in the late ‘90s. And in this economically depressed, all-black neighborhood, Luther’s not only universally accepted, but also universally respected and adored. It’s a site to behold.
A last remaining link to the fife and drum culture of 19th century Mississippi, Turner—or “Gabe,” as friends knew him—was an internationally recognized bluesman who toured the world, but had no use for any modernisms. He raised his own vegetables and animals here on this tiny patch of land where goats roam free and strings double as door locks. Before Turner’s death, Luther came here countless times to learn about life and the blues—and to play. “Otha’s music exemplified the hill country blues,” he says from Gabe’s water-warped plywood porch. “You have three drums beating out the rhythm, and the vocals and the fife playing the melody. To me, that’s what hill country is like.”
For as long as folks around here can remember, on the last Saturday in August, Turner’s family has hosted an annual picnic, where people from around the globe come to taste the real Mississippi, to feel the spirit of the country blues, the world boogie, as the Dickinsons call it. It’s an enlightened event, for sure, where strangers are embraced and color and class lines disappear.
At the last minute, this year’s picnic was pushed back a week into September. It’s clear the word hasn’t really gotten around as out-of-towners drive by confused. But for those who came out, tonight there will be a little consolation party over at the home of Miss Betty, Gabe’s oldest daughter, where some 25 of us will feast on fried catfish and goat, sip moonshine and catch the world boogie under the moonlight as a smiley Luther and local howler R.L. Boyce grind out raunchy riffs into the night.
If any one thing marks just how much things have changed in recent years for Luther, it’s Turner’s passing. “It made me rethink who we are and what’s unique about what we’re doing,” he says. About a year after Gabe’s death, Luther started writing lyrics remembering Turner and slain guitarist Lee Baker, while also celebrating those who are still around, like friend and Burnside guitarist Kenny Brown.
“There are these sort of folk heroes who get immortalized through song, like, say, Stagger Lee or Casey Jones,” says Cody. “And after Otha’s death, Luther saw an opportunity to immortalize the folk heroes that we know, and grew up around. So there are these certain characters, reoccurring themes and locations throughout Electric Blue Watermelon,” which finds the boys covering Turner, Odetta and Charley Patton. Turner himself shows up on the album, via an old recording. A mélange of country blues and southern-fried rock and hip-hop, the disc features friends like Lucinda Williams and Robert Randolph, and takes its name from the all-white house band that backed the likes of Furry Lewis and Mississippi Fred McDowell at the Memphis blues festivals of the 1960s.
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