Luther Dickinson can rattle off the names of long-forgotten bluesmen with the ease of a nun naming the 12 apostles. There’re the easy ones like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, current alterna-hipster essentials to show you’ve got roots. Then there’s some 10-point names like Otha Turner, a 93-year-old cane fife player, and the dueling Mississippis, John Hurt and Fred McDowell. The guitarist studied the raucous and soulful hill-country blues around his native North Mississippi with all the giddy glee of a couple of high-schoolers taking their first serious shot at playing doctor. He’s channeled all of that knowledge into one of the best blues-dipped rock bands of the last decade, the North Mississippi Allstars.
Yet the last thing Dickinson wants to blabber on about is the preservation of the blues. He could give a crap about that. Sure, it’s a national treasure and all. And Dickinson owes nearly everything he’s achieved to rock’s basic backbone. As far as he’s concerned, though, those who dedicate their lives only to the blues and nothing more are missing 90 percent of the picture.
“The blues purists,” he says, a bit of disgust tarnishing his slow Southern drawl, “they only want to hear the old stuff. They close off their minds to new things like, say, rap. They don’t hear the influence in it, but the blues is in there. Rap is just folk music. It’s a product of its time and it expresses what’s going on, just like blues always has.”
As if to prove he’s broken his blues bindings, Dickinson starts in on his current favorite. “I absolutely love the new Jay-Z album,” he says excitedly. “I got to see his Unplugged on MTV the other night—it was amazing.”
Even so, most blues nuts wouldn’t even know how to go about hooking Robert Johnson to the Jigga. They just haven’t heard enough. But Dickinson has spent his life collecting every kind of sound possible. The son of legendary producer Jim Dickinson, Luther grew up watching his dad squeeze classic albums out of The Replacements, Big Star, Ry Cooder and a thousand others. Musicians floated in and out of the house constantly. And then there were the thousands of records in the basement that Luther and his drummer brother Cody would sit and listen to for hours. Sure, dad made sure the boys knew the music that surrounded them—a rich and funky blues that screamed from the hilltops rather than seeped up from the Delta—but it was just a starting point, not the end.
The proof: Like every other kid in the country, the Dickinsons had to break away from daddy’s teachings for awhile. In ’93, Luther and his brother formed the hyperactive funky punk outfit DDT, a group that split the difference between the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Black Flag. The band only released a couple live albums before breaking up in ’95. Even so, there were early clues as to where the boys would end up: DDT’s first album was titled Some of Best My Friends Are Blues.
Things came full circle by ’99, when the Dickinsons, along with gospel bassist Chris Chew, formed the Allstars and released Shake Hands With Shorty. The album was basically an ode to the hill-country blues the boys had grown up on, the Allstars taking the songs of Burnside, Kimbrough and McDowell and putting their own stamp on them. “We just wanted to get inside this tradition that we had grown up on,” Dickinson says, “this stuff that was right in our backyard.”
The Allstars’ latest disc, Phantom 51 (Artemis), is what happens when that tradition gets updated and put to good use. Sporting only two covers this time, the disc is a thick mix of blues, grit and pure rock attitude—think Keith Richards, ZZ Top and Jon Spencer in a whiskey-drinking contest. The songs are simple, loud and true. There’s no extra fat, no useless bravado, Papa Dickinson—he produced the disc—making sure his boys drive the point home as quick as possible. And on songs like “Snakes in My Bushes” and the title track they do, the Allstars bang out blasts of boogie blues that move more seductively than a stripper on stage. Then again, what else would you expect? Like Dickinson moans on the oil-thick “Mud,” “I’m in the mud and the mud is in me.” It’s in his blood; all he can do is let it flow and see what happens.
“We’ve never tried to prove anything or be anything we’re not,’ Dickinson says. “A lot of bands these days don’t have roots that go back any further than the ’80s. We’ve heard it all. This is what we grew up on. We can’t get away from it. And because of that, we try to write songs that are as primitive as possible, like they were old country folk songs. We just crank them up. That’s when it gets interesting.”