The North Mississippi Allstars’ Luther Dickinson says corn liquor is the secret ingredient of hill-country blues


By Steve Newton

With its new CD, Electric Blue Watermelon, the North Mississippi Allstars head straight back to the hypnotic roots of the hill-country sound. On the track “Moonshine”, singer-guitarist Luther Dickinson relives the group’s youthful experiences jamming with late blues legend Otha Turner and playing all-night boogie at Junior Kimbrough’s Juke Joint in Chulahoma, Mississippi, in the early ’90s. The trio weren’t of drinking age at the time, but that didn’t stop them from experimenting with corn liquor.

“That’s the secret ingredient to the hill-country blues,” relates Dickinson, on the line from a tour stop in Madison, Wisconsin. “That stuff’s got such an almost psychedelic high, and the hill-country blues is a unique form of music that is real trance-y. It’s all about the rhythms and the riffs.”

There’s plenty of R ‘n’ R on Electric Blue Watermelon, which brings to mind the bluesy rawness of the band’s 2000 debut, Shake Hands With Shorty. Both of those discs were helmed by Luther and NMA drummer Cody Dickinson’s famed producer dad, Jim Dickinson.

“We can’t help it,” says Luther. “It always sounds like rock ‘n’ roll. But it’s different lyrically. I was tryin’ to write modern folksongs about my home and the people that were really special to me.”

Guitarist Kenny Brown, “adopted grandson” of late hill-country legend R.L. Burnside, is one of those highly thought-of folk. During his wailing guitar solo on “Teasin’ Brown”, Luther hollers: “Come on, man! Kenny Brown’s got his long johns on!” That’s his unique way of paying tribute to the lanky picker, who had hired Dickinson to tour with him and Burnside in ’97.

“Kenny taught me how to take a band on the road,” says the 32-year-old rocker, “and me and my brother have been doin’ it ever since.”

Brown doesn’t appear on Electric Blue Watermelon, but pedal-steel ace Robert Randolph lights up the frets on “Stompin’ My Foot”. Also guesting on the CD is country-roots crooner Lucinda Williams, who duets with Dickinson on “Hurry Up Sunrise”. That tune had its origin in casual jams that the Dickinson brothers had with long-time family friend Turner.

“After Otha passed [in 2003], I went through all these old tapes I had of us sittin’ around jammin’,” recalls Dickinson. “We used to sit on the front porch and drink moonshine and talk and laugh and play guitars and sing, and after he passed I took these tapes with me out on the road and transcribed all the words. I kinda rearranged ’em and made three songs out of ’em, two of which were ‘Teasin’ Brown’ and ‘Hurry Up Sunrise’.”

The Dickinsons-along with bassist Chris Chew-will bring their new tunes to the Commodore on Wednesday (September 28) for a coheadlining bill with local roots-rock greats She Stole My Beer. They were at the same venue recently as John Hiatt’s backing band, having lent their considerable talents to his latest disc, Master of Disaster.

“He was real cool ’cause he took the time to teach us the songs by hand,” notes Dickinson. “We rehearsed like two-and-a-half weeks, and that was super. It was very natural too, because John and my father and Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner used to play a lot of music together in the ’80s as we were growin’ up, so Cody and I grew up with that music and studied it. I’ve had that Bring the Family record since I was like 13 or 14.”

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