By Ashley Zimmerman
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By Sayre Berman
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"Parts of Mississippi still suck," says Luther Dickinson, lead singer and guitarist for the North Mississippi Allstars, "but I'll tell you -- the Hill Country is a really enlightened place. I can't explain why, but we've always had wonderful experiences there. I think the music always brings people together, just erases all lines or boundaries."
Dickinson, on the phone from a tour stop in Vancouver, knows all about the fickle disposition of the American South. He and his brother Cody, who along with bassist Chris Chew comprise the blues-rocking Allstars, grew up as nomads in Dixie's musical meccas. From a young age, the brothers followed their father -- producer, keyboardist, and bandleader Jim Dickinson -- from studios in Memphis to stages across the Southeast, absorbing his collaborations the way school kids do history lessons. From the Rolling Stones to Big Star, the Replacements to Spiritualized, Jim Dickinson made his mark on both the recording industry and his children.
"We grew up in a real rock 'n' roll environment," Luther recalls, his voice thick, rolling, like the landscape of his band's namesake state. "That upbringing is what's helped us become who we are. Watching [our dad] hustle through the years has been a great example of how you gotta do it. It's the family business."
Seems like the boys paid good attention to Pop's instruction. Since they formed in 1996, the Allstars have been at the forefront of the new Southern-rock movement, riding shotgun alongside critical favorites like My Morning Jacket and Drive-by Truckers. The Allstars possess a more traditional Southern sound, but they also brandish a greater range of influences and a more improvisational approach. Luther's slide guitar takes the sunny sheen of Duane Allman and scuffs it with a wiry punk brush, while his voice resembles the raspy bark of Social Distortion's Mike Ness, bruised to perfection by the bottle rather than the needle. Cody's drumming is brash, curt, and explosive, and he often dabbles in sampled hip-hop beats and the homespun spatter of an electric washboard. The trio format allows for blistering, speaker-busting interaction, but Chew's rhythmic anchor always pushes the boogie. Steeped in cranky, crackly blues and raucous rock 'n' roll, their sound is, at its heart, roots music.
"I grew up loving all the traditional, old-time blues, but I never thought I'd experience it firsthand," Luther says. In the mid-'90s, as they started befriending and playing with the original Hill Country bluesmen, he and Cody transitioned away from the punk-funk of their first band, DDT, to their present incarnation.
"It was something I had to do," Luther explains. "I had this band, and we'd been going a good many years, but I'd been hanging out with Otha Turner and R.L. Burnside and really studying Mississippi Fred McDowell. At a certain point, I was like, 'Look, we're just gonna start another band,'" he laughs. "And as soon as we started the Allstars, it felt like the right thing."
As the old Hill Country warhorses disappear with age (Burnside is one of the few still living), Luther recognizes that it's increasingly crucial for younger bands like his to carry the torch. Burnside's son Duwayne played guitar with the Allstars from 2001 to 2003, and Turner's Rising Star Fife and Drum Band has made several notable appearances alongside NMA. "It's a generational thing," he says, "because there are other families keeping it going. All the musical families down there, once we got together, it was really good times."
This devotion to the blues-soaked heritage of their beloved Hill Country, their rock 'n' roll pedigree, and their youthful take on older forms all coalesce beautifully on NMA's fourth album, Electric Blue Watermelon, set for release this September.
"I think it's probably our best record, but I don't know," Luther says. "It's just a real good Mississippi rock 'n' roll record. It's just about who we are, where we come from." Production by father Jim keeps songs like "Moonshine" and "Hurry Up Sunrise" punchy, laden with feel-good hooks. Guests as diverse as country crooner Lucinda Williams, lap-steel whiz kid Robert Randolph, Memphis rapper Al Capone, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band kick Watermelon into unexpected territory. Southern traditionals like the blues stomp "Mississippi Boll Weevil" and gospel-flavored "Deep Blue Sea" steep it in Southern soul.
"To me, those are our contemporaries," Luther explains of the additional players, "those are the people we're close with. Like Robert, I've known him since the beginning."
The Allstars can also add cult icon John Hiatt to that list. They're currently touring as both opening act and his backing band to the underrated singer-songwriter.
"He and our father used to work together back in the '80s," Luther says. "They're old friends, and after the Bonnaroo CD that we put out, Hill Country Revue, Hiatt contacted us. He wanted to make his next record, so we did [Hiatt's Master of Disaster, released in late June]. Cody and I backed him up, and our father produced it. It's real similar to our stuff; it's real natural, because his music is real rootsy."
In the case of the North Mississippi Allstars, roots can grow just about anywhere. The Hill Country is an obvious place to look. Memphis is another. But the hip-hop coming out of those places isn't.