Straight from the Mississippi Mud
An Interview with the North Mississippi Allstars
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2002, Volume 9, #6
Written by John Metzger
The North Mississippi Allstars could have been named anything, and there would be little doubt as to where the bandís roots lie. After all, hill country blues is the basis for the groupís sound, and its sets and albums are peppered with songs by Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough. But the band hardly stops there as elements of everything imaginable ó including classic rock, punk, gospel, and psychedelic pop ó seem to waft through the music that spans the groupís first two albums Shake Hands with Shorty and 51 Phantom. Itís a unique sound that allows the band to appeal to a wide audience. Said guitarist Luther Dickinson, "We came up from a community of musicians and different types of roots music from Mississippi and Memphis. I also grew up listening to Black Flag and Van Halen and watching MTV."
"Being able to span the ages as far as the people who like our music is definitely part of our strength, and itís what is going to give us longevity as a band," adds his brother Cody.
The North Mississippi Allstars was founded in 1996 by the Dickinson brothers, who also happen to be sons of legendary Memphis producer-musician Jim Dickinson. Not surprisingly, Luther and Cody grew up surrounded by a wide array of music and musicians, all of which, no doubt, has had a huge influence on their style. Said Luther, "We were always fascinated by guitars and tape machines. Our dad taught Cody [to play] K.C. Jones on the guitar when he was 4 or 5."
"Musically, as kids, we were rocking out and playing whatever we wanted ó any type of music we were into at the time or whatever we could write. Then every once in awhile, we would have to back him up on a show. So, we would have to learn all different types of roots music ó early rock ínĎ roll, soul, rockabilly, country...all types of different roots music because thatís his bag. It took a long time, but eventually I came around and became fascinated with the hill country blues. Iíd been playing slide, finger pickiní, and open tuned guitar all my life ó but when I finally came to it from my own angle, it was very natural because I grew up with it."
In a sense, it was Lutherís rediscovery of the hill country sound that was the birth of the North Mississippi Allstars. He and Cody quickly brought onboard longtime friend Chris Chew to play bass. Said Cody, "We all went to the same high school. He would go to our shows at these shady punk rock clubs in Memphis. He was definitely interested in music. He didnít play the bass at all as far as I know. But [when] he started playing with us, thatís basically where he picked it up. Heís amazing. He progressed really fast."
The trio spent the next several years developing its sound and performing live as much as possible, including twice-a-week, four-hour shows on Memphisí famed Beale Street. By the time, the group recorded its debut Shake Hands with Shorty, the trio had clearly gelled. The album received rave reviews and surprising radio support, considering it featured many extended jams and no original songs. Said Luther, "Itís been a pleasant surprise right from the jump."
The group quickly returned to the studio to record its sophomore effort 51 Phantom, which took the band in many new directions. For one, it featured many original compositions. And, its songs were more concise; its arrangements more focused. Said Luther, "The biggest difference is that Shake Hands with Shorty was all material that we grew up playing and material that weíd been playing live for years. So, we knew exactly how we wanted to do it. With 51 Phantom, we were trying to stretch our boundaries, and we had new songs that we hadnít been playing live that much. Thatís when we brought our father Jim into the fold and let him sculpt the overall shape of the record."
"The funny thing about that is that 51 Phantom, in reality, is more of a live record," he added. "The majority of it was recorded with all three of us in the room playing live ó first or second take. The production makes it sound more like a studio record."
Throughout all this, the band has continued to tour relentlessly, performing close to two hundred shows a year. "[The road] has really turned into our home in a way," said Luther. "Cody said something that stuck with me: ĎThe music that we play ó not only is it rooted in our home, but itís turned into our home.í"
For a time, keyboardist Garry Burnside had joined the North Mississippi Allstars, but the resulting sound wasnít quite what the Dickinsons wanted. They found their answer in Garryís older brother Duwayne. Said Luther, " Weíve been searching for the right fourth member for years. Having Duwayne in there ó heís so good and heís so smooth. Heís just got a nasty, hardcore, aggressive blues sound in his lead guitar playing, which is a good contrast to me. I donít play blues; Iím a rock Ďní roller. But Duwayne is hardcore blues. Heís got a great singing voice, great guitar work. He plays drums. And not only that, heís a really wise guy. Heís almost from the old school, and he keeps us straight. Heís a good thing to have with us."
As for whatís next for the North Mississippi Allstars, the band is anxious to get back into the studio to record its third album. Said Cody, "Itís going to really span everything ó the whole, full dynamic of the band ó all the different kinds of music that we play and everything we touch on at our shows and even in the studio."
"This new record is going to have to be a double because itís going to stretch all the boundaries," added Luther. "Thereís going to be more traditional hill country blues that weíre reinterpreting. Thereís going to be original blues that Duwayne Burnside has brought into the band. People are just going to eat it up. Iíve been writing and Codyís been writing, so weíve got modern rock and pop-psychedelic stuff thatís going to be in there too. Itís going to be all-encompassing. Maybe some blues purists who didnít like 51 Phantom ó there will be something for them on the next one. We just canít help it. Weíve been musicians all our lives, and we just keep growing."
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Copyright © 2002 The Music Box