The blues runs deep in Luther Dickinson’s blood. The son of famed Memphis musician and record producer Jim Dickinson (the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan), Luther moved to the north Mississippi hills when he and his brother, Cody, were barely teenagers, eventually befriending the families of the Hill Country’s revered troika of bluesmen: Junior Kimbrough, R. L. Burnside, and cane fife player Otha Turner.
The thick, greasy blues sounds of the Hill Country inspired the brothers to form the North Mississippi Allstars, one of the best modern blues bands going (their Grammy-nominated 2000 debut Shake Hands With Shorty is a stone-cold classic).
But now, with his career-encompassing solo double album Blues & Ballads (A Folksinger’s Songbook) Volumes I & II, Luther delves deep into a collection of songs that he wrote for the Allstars, as well as songs he learned from friends and family, and songs passed down to him by his heroes and mentors. Most of the tracks are stripped of the Hill Country sizzle, with Dickinson pairing delicate acoustic guitar parts with his unmistakable voice, which drips with the honeyed accent of his home state.
He also brings some friends along to help on the album. Mavis Staples adds gorgeous vocals to the mournful “Ain’t No Grave,” a song Dickinson penned after the death of his father in 2009. It soars higher than a thousand eulogies could ever do. On “Up Over Yonder,” Jason Isbell peels off a hazy, spacey steel guitar part, while fellow bluesman JJ Grey adds nimble, delicate harmonies. Other highlights include “Moonshine,” an ode to Junior Kimbrough’s legendary Sunday night juke joint parties, and the Elvis-on-speed two-minute shuffle on “Blow Out.”
Out Friday, February 5, Blues & Ballads contains 21 songs, and there’s no filler. It’s a guide to the legends and songs that any fan of the blues needs to hear. Take a listen to the world premiere of Blues & Ballads (A Folksinger’s Songbook) Volumes I & II; you’ll be better for it.