The North Mississippi Allstars debut with that crazy hill-country sound



By Steve Newton

When North Mississippi Allstars guitarist-vocalist Luther Dickinson calls the Straight from the band’s tour bus in Chicago, he’s all apologetic about missing a scheduled phone interview the day before. Seems that Luther, his drummer brother Cody, and bassist Chris Chew had performed on Late Night With Conan O’Brien a couple of evenings prior, and then partied in the Big Apple all night, catching a 6 a.m. flight to Chicago. Needless to say, when they finally got to their hotel in the Windy City they were basically just too bushed to push their show at the Picadilly Pub on Saturday (August 5).

That’s cool. I don’t want them talkin’ if they’re saving themselves for rockin’, which is what they’ve been doing lots of lately, riding the sizable buzz generated by their swampy mix of genuine Mississippi hill-country blues and riff-driven southern rock. The 30-page press release that came across my desk with their debut CD, Shake Hands With Shorty, is packed with glowing reviews from such influential sources as Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and the New York Times. There’s even a recent cover story from Time magazine that prominently features the fast-rising trio. So in the process of adding my own two bits’ worth to the reams of endorsements, I ask the 27-year-old Dickinson what he thinks all the fuss is about.

“Uh, I don’t know, man,” he drawls. “We’ve been together for four years, and we waited a long time to make a record, so I guess we built some anticipation there. To me, we’re just a traditional rock ’n’ roll band, but we grew up in Mississippi and we play the crazy style of the music we grew up on, you know, so it’s weird.”

The Allstars cut their teeth on the music of Fred McDowell and R. L. Burnside, two legends of northern Mississippi hill-country blues. Luther and Cody are also the sons of legendary Memphis roots-rock producer Jim Dickinson (the Replacements, Ry Cooder), and they were exposed to the blues from an early age. (Luther actually attended the 1972 funeral of McDowell—as well as a Rolling Stones concert—in utero.)

Another thing that got the guitarist headed in his current musical direction was spending time with one of the hill country’s oldest bluesmen, 92-year-old Otha Turner, who presides over the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band in Senatobia, Mississippi. It was Turner who took Luther Dickinson under his wing and taught him how to value feeling over flash. “And not just by talking to me,” asserts Dickinson, “but just hanging out with him and experiencing his lifestyle. ’Cause he’s got a huge farm, and he’s got his own cows, his own pigs, his own goats. He drinks his own milk and he loves moonshine. It’s wild!”

Turner plays a flutelike instrument called the cane fife on Shake Hands With Shorty, which also includes appearances by Alvin Youngblood Hart and Garry and Cedric Burnside, grandchildren of R. L. Although the NMA cover three songs by the Burnside patriarch—and four by McDowell—Dickinson claims that their next album will be all originals.

“We’ve all got different writing styles,” he points out. “Like Chris has got a great gospel influence, and Cody, he’s got like a more traditional pop writing style. And myself, I’ve been trying to write in the hill-country style for years, you know. But anyway, we’re just gonna throw everything together and see what we come up with.”

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