Hill Country Salute

With a new album and an old focus, the North Mississippi Allstars get back to blues basics

Photo: Photograph by Jason Thrasher

Luther (left) and Cody Dickinson before a show at the Georgia Theatre in Athens.

“I’ve spent so much time saying we’re not a blues band and I’m not a blues musician,” says Luther Dickinson, singer
 and guitarist for the North Mississippi All-stars. That might sound like a bewildering statement from someone who grew up down the road from Junior Kimbrough’s legendary Sunday-night-only juke joint and attended raucous house parties thrown by R. L. Burnside. But in recent years, Luther and his brother and bandmate,
Cody Dickinson, had drifted away from the sound they obsessed over while growing up.

Released in 2000, the first Allstars record, Shake Hands with Shorty, prompted heaps of praise for their take on Mississippi Hill Country blues. They toured the world, playing giant rock festivals with the likes
of Oasis and Rage Against the Machine, and when it came time to record their follow-up, the rawness of their first effort took on a sheen of rock-and-roll gloss. “Our first record changed our lives, but it blew us off axis,” Luther says. “We lost touch with what made us unique in the first place.”

With the Allstars’ latest effort, World Boogie Is Coming, the brothers are back to planting their flag firmly in the Mississippi mud. Named after a favorite saying of their dad’s (he was the renowned musician and producer Jim Dickinson), Boogie is a return to the greasy licks the pair feel they ignored for too many years. The resurgence began two years ago at an Allstars show, where a friend handed Luther a two-string coffee-can guitar on which he proceeded to play the blues standard “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” But it took the egging of his brother to get Luther to commit to a style Cody dubbed “primitive modern.” “He pushed and pushed, telling me, ‘This is what we have to do,’” Luther says. “And he steered us back to the sound. So Boogie feels like it should have been our second record, not our seventh.”

For the recording at their own Zebra Ranch Studios in Coldwater, Mississippi, the Dickinsons gathered a who’s who of area musicians, including two of Burnside’s sons, Duwayne and Garry, local guitar god Kenny Brown, Lightnin’ Malcolm on bass, and Sharde Thomas, granddaughter of fife player Otha Turner. Oh, and also another lover of the blues: Robert Plant. The three had long talked about working together, and Plant happened to be nearby in Memphis for a tour stop. “He showed up and said he wanted to play harmonica in the key of A,” Luther says. “We figured out something for him to do really quick.”

Plant wails away on Junior Kimbrough’s song “JR” and the Allstars original “Goat Meat,” inspired by the barbecues that Otha Turner would hold on the weekend. The rest of Boogie is mostly traditional Hill Country blues, including some songs like “Meet Me in the City” and “Snake Drive” that the band had previously recorded but tackled again, turning out grittier, bare-bones versions.

So after years of, as Luther says, “self-indulgent” records as well as stints playing with John Hiatt and others, the brothers are out to claim the blues—not just for themselves but to pass on to other and younger musicians. “A friend of mine told me that we were the link—we have to keep it primitive,” Luther says. “So now it’s time to stand up for Mississippi blues.”