North Mississippi Allstars: "Going Down South" (Relix Revisited)
Ask the brothers’ father, a former member of that band, and he’ll tell you: There’s something in the air here. It’s one of the reasons he moved his family here. “I think it’s a wandering spirit. It comes and goes, but you can always feel a little of it.” Considering both their history and genes, if anyone’s qualified to kindle that spirit, it’s the Dickson brothers.
Born four years after Jim played piano on the Stones’ “Wild Horses,” Luther’s first word was “studio,” and his earliest childhood memory is of his dad teaching him to snap his fingers. With Luther in her womb, Lindsay Dickinson attended a Stones show in Nashville and the funeral for McDowell, a major influence on Luther.
Arriving 10 days after the death of Jim’s dear friend and former Dixie Flyers bandmate Charlie Freeman, Luther’s birth put the breaks on his dad’s rock excesses. Born as Jim was making Big Star’s 3rd: Sister Lovers, Cody “stopped me cold,” he says. “I’m sure I would have been a dead junkie.”
While Jim would later try half-heatedly to steer Luther away from music, he didn’t shy away from surrounding the boys with the tools of the trade come Christmastime, Jim remembers, noting that he used to put toddler Luther atop an old piano previously used in the writing room at the great Memphis soul label Stax. “He couldn’t get down, so it became sort of the playpen.” Before Cody had finished kindergarten, he and Luther had formed a band.
A natural musician, Cody started on guitar and moved to drums at 10. When he got his first full sized drum set, the boys jammed on “Honky Tonk Women” in the living room. With his check for producing The Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me, Jim built a studio and rehearsal space for the boys in the basement. “Before either one of them could play, they could make noise rhythmically together—it was almost like music,” he laughs.
Growing up, both kids sought the approval of their father, who was particularly hard on Cody. “When I was a teen, we would back up their dad for concerts, and I remember being at rehearsals and hearing him just screaming at the top of his lungs at Cody: ‘You’re dragging!,’” says DDT’s Paul Taylor. “Can you imagine the pressure on him, knowing that your dad had played with Jim Keltner?”
Says Jim: “It troubles me that it came so easily, because you have to work for it. Luther worked for everything he got, every lick, and Cody sat down when he was 12 years old and started playing guitar like a man.” His entire life, Cody, a fan of pop and hip-hop, has clashed with Jim and Luther over music.
“We’re just totally different people,” he says of Luther. “He likes to go to record stores and looks through the vinyl and hang out with indie rockers, and I’ll get on the internet and download the song from iTunes if I want the new G-unit track or whatever. He’s married and I’m a total player. He rolls his own cigarettes, and I smoke Parliaments. He’s more of on the old-fashioned country boy tip, and I’m sort of more the ‘give me everything new’ city boy.” Case in point: while Cody lives in a new home in a cookie-cutter neighborhood not far from the Memphis airport, Luther still resides in the country, sharing a 103-year-old home with his wife Necha and two dogs. What’s more, Cody has launched his own label, Diamond-D Records, which is to officially bow with the new album form local MC Al Kapone, who guests on Electric Blue Watermelon and is featured in the movie Hustle and Flow.
With Taylor, the brothers formed DDT as teens. “We called it a punk rock band,” says Cody, “but the reality is we were just playing punk rock clubs. We were actually playing more like fusion rock.”
An early fan of the band was Hernando High classmate and prep sports standout Chris Chew, a growing mountain of a man who hung out at gigs and occasionally jammed with the guys in their basement. As DDT grew its fanbase in the early ‘90s, Chew attended community college and the University of Memphis—playing offensive tackle for both—and began directing both the choir and the band at his church. So when Luther, having become obsessed with the hill country blues, called in 1997, saying that Taylor had left to pursue other projects, Chew was the natural choice for a replacement. DDT had already morphed into the Allstars and featured a saxophonist, extra vocalist and keyboardist, all of whom would leave to pursue other interests.
With Chew bringing a gospel sense of harmony to the mix, things began escalating. “As soon as Chris started, we had 30 people, and then we had 60, and pretty soon we had 150,” recalls Cody. “We could have played the same music with Paul but it wouldn’t have happened the way it did.” While the music was increasingly more adventurous and sophisticated, the band now had massive stage presence. Says Jim: “All they had to do is walk onstage to connect. You’ve already said, ‘Look at this: Here’s the two crazy white boys and the big black guy.”
During a string of gigs on Beale Street in Memphis, the Allstar caught the eye of the Tone Cool Records, through whom they made their official debut in 2000, with Shake Hands With Shorty. Cut at their dad’s home studio, the Zebra Ranch, for next to nothings, the album did better than expected, moving some 100,000 units. After another tour behind their follow-up, 2001’s 51 Phantom, the Allstars moved to the ATO label and were universally bashed for their third disc, the schizophrenic Polaris, which featured the addition of R.L. Burnside’s guitarist son Duwayne. Disjointed, the album is a collection of three drug-fueled batches of songs, one written by Luther and produced by him and his father, another written and produced by Cody, and a third from Duwayne.
“All the people that pissed on Polaris, it’s fair enough, I understand that,” says Cody. “But there was just a lot of things that were happening at the same time that made that music happen. When we made 51 Phantom, Luther hadn’t showed me a lot of these songs before we went in, and I felt a little blindsided. It’s a great record, and I love it, but there was so much happening, and there wasn’t enough communication. Dad was producing the record, and he was kind of forcing these songs. I just felt a little strong-armed, and I just got fed up, and I went to England to visit my girlfriend at the time, who was studying aboard.”
While there, Cody bumped into Oasis: “I remember telling Noel Gallagher one night, ‘I’m not really getting along with my brother.’ Liam was sitting right there are said, ‘You don’t fucking need him,’ got up and walked away. Noel said, ‘Don’t listen to him. This is the way it’s been for us: Don’t hold one day’s grudges. You’re gonna have a good day, then a bad day, and then a good day, but you basically have to let bygones be bygones.’ In hindsight, Noel was totally right and Liam was totally wrong, because I totally need Luther, there’s no doubt about it.”
Back home, Cody was “tearing shit up” in the Memphis ghettos. “I was doing a lot of drugs and hanging out with a lot of rappers in neighborhoods where kids like me just don’t go—and I was staying there all the time.” It was there that he befriended Duwayne, whom he started recording at the Zebra Ranch, merely for fun at first. But Luther saw an opportunity to both experiment musically and mend his relationship with his brother. “Part of the reason I asked Duwayne to join the band,” he says, “was to help bring us closer together. We were at a real strained point, and, sure enough, it worked,” noting that if Polaris sounds disjointed, it’s because it was a completely collaborative album on which both Cody and Duwayne were given equal space. “I was trying to keep the band together.”
Yes, the move worked, but almost at a huge cost: Duwayne nearly drove Chew out of the band. Having driven a truck in the band’s early years, Chew began to look for a day job by the end of the Polaris tour, his memory of which is marred by Duwayne’s erratic behavior. After routinely getting wasted on drugs and booze, Burnside started missing soundchecks and floating on and offstage during shows, Chew says. “It was getting to where he was kind of like running the band, like it was his band.”
Eventually, Duwayne returned to a solo career, but not before he skipped an overseas tour and began asking for a bigger nightly cut than Chew, who couldn’t be happier the band is back to a trio. “These past five years together, we’ve bonded together as a team. There’s not many rhythm sections on the road—I don’t give a damn who they are—that’s better than me, Cody and Luther. There’s not a rhythm section better. We just feel each other out. It’s something that we worked on, worked on, and worked on. It took a lot of years to get to this point.”
Down the muddy drive leading to the Zebra Ranch, there’s a pair of trailers, one of the Allstars H.Q., the other Lindsay and Jim’s home. Behind the latter, Jim’s tossed several of his old paintings—he finds them more interesting as they rot. Inside are scores of zebra-striped knick knacks and mounds of CDs and music magazines. The kitchen counter is lined with trophies from the Recording Academy acknowledging Jim’s many Grammy nominations. On the walls are pictures of Jim with some of his so-called “victims,” including Keith Richards and Bob Dylan, who during a visit a few years back, remarked, “Jim, ya got all a man could need out here,” on his way out back to the vine-covered barn housing his studio.
On the way in, you pass the old Stax piano, also rotting in the elements. “It originally came from a gay bar,” Jim says, pointing to the sparkly Formica.
Inside, he waxes poetic on the record-making process and old friends like Lee Baker, the motorcyclist racing Heavenward on the Electric Blue Watermelon cover. Holding a vinyl copy of the album, he’s glowing with pride. Luther explains that since childhood he’s wanted to make a truly collaborative album with his father, and on multiple levels, this is finally it. While Jim helmed 51 Phantom, Watermelon is a shared vision. It digs much deeper.
“This goes back 25 years,” says Jim. “They started producing this record 25 years ago. For the boys, it’s either a jumping-off point, or it’s the lid on the box. One thing’s for sure: If we put this record out in the ‘70s, they’d be worshipped like gods.”
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