“I’m not interested in being a blues purist, and I’m not even capable of that,” says Luther Dickinson, the six-string daredevil best known for fronting roots-jam mavens the North Mississippi All Stars.
“I grew up playing punk rock music and rock ‘n’ roll, and I believe that helps me contribute to the evolution of blues and the other old-timey music — whether it’s jazz or folk or whatever — that I love. When people try playing music like it was played in 1954, that’s when it sounds stagnant to me. You’ve got to be yourself, and you’ve got to keep the music evolving so it stays fresh.”
Evolution and change are certainly constants in the All Stars catalog, from their R.L. Burnside influenced 2000 debut Shake Hands With Shorty to the Allman’s flavored 2005 excursion Electric Blue Watermelon to the riff-twisted Hernando from 2008 to last year’s Keys To the Kingdom, which pays uplifting tribute to Luther and his drummer/bandmate brother Cody’s late father, the piano and production genius Jim Dickinson.
As if shaking things up inside the All Stars isn’t enough to keep Dickinson’s approach to guitar, mandolin, banjo and anything else with strings and frets fresh, he’s also played a four-year stint with the Black Crowes, co-led the gospel-roots supergroup the Word with pedal steel phenom Robert Randolph, wailed on two John Hiatt albums, and formed, toured and recorded with the South Memphis String Band, which includes fellow Memphis area roots six-stringers Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart.
Lately Dickinson’s been catering to his love of acoustic and old-time music with yet another new group, the Wandering. Their debut Go On Now You Can’t Stay Here has just been released at the same time as an acoustic Dickinson solo disc called Hambone’s Meditations and the South Memphis String Band’s sophomore CD Old Times There. Dickinson describes Hambone’s Meditations as influenced by John Fahey and other players from the open-tuned folk guitar revival or the ’60s, while the Wandering is an astonishing aggregation of inventive roots-attuned musicians from the Memphis and North Mississippi region that includes upright bassist and singer Amy Levere, singer-songwriters Shannon McNally and Valerie June, and Sharde Thomas, who inherited Mississippi’s primal Rising Star Fife and Drum Band from her late grandfather Othar Turner. Together with Luther they generate sweet ‘n’ heavy grooves solely with acoustic instruments and offer an estimation of what constitutes traditional roots standards that has room for the Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman” as well as Robert Johnson’s “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.”
Speaking to Dickinson by phone on a Wandering tour stop, it’s obvious that despite his reputation as the loud picker in the All Stars, acoustic music is dearest to his heart.
“I don’t even have an amplifier in my house,” he attests. “I love my electric guitars and store them at home, but what I always pick up is my acoustic instruments. Even when I was first starting out in punk rock as a teenager in DDT, there was always Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, Doc Watson and all the country bluesmen that I learned about because of my dad’s tastes. My dad was also a big influence and there’s kind of a parallel between us. His group Mudboy & the Neutrons was a big, noisy rock band that could go anywhere, but they also had an acoustic jug band incarnation with the same line-up.
“Even with the All Stars, my ideal sound on electric guitar is like a big, loud acoustic guitar,” he continues. “Solo voice and acoustic guitar is my favorite art form, whether it’s John Hurt or Bob Dylan. It’s completely timeless and absolutely devoid of any trendiness. I made one album with the All Stars — Hernando — that was so riff-driven rock ‘n’ roll like AC/DC or Z.Z. Top that when it came time to make appearances in records stores or on the radio, I couldn’t play any of the songs on acoustic guitar. I thought, “This is (expletive deleted). I am never doing this again!”
Dickinson considers the albums by the Wandering and the jug band influenced South Memphis String Band and his new solo effort tonic for the times. “Today everything is so immediate and no information is retained because it’s all “Google-able,” he says. “Everybody is so busy communicating with each other that they miss what’s actually happening in their lives. Records like Go On Now You Can’t Stay Here are cathartic. They’re like a sigh of relief.”
The Wandering in particular seems ground-up natural. One day Dickinson drafted a wish list of players he thought would bring interesting ideas to an acoustic roots music project, and when he phoned Lavere, Thomas, McNally and June, they were all available and excited to band together. Each brought a list of tunes to the studio, and Dickinson describes his role as “just filling in the gaps” on guitar, mandolin and banjo.
“All my life I’ve been a Gibson man,” he explains. “Growing up my father had a 1956 ES-175 that had the reputation of being the best guitar in Memphis. When I was 15 or 16 I got my first real serious guitar, which was an Epiphone Casino I still play.”
On Go On Now You Can’t Stay Here Dickinson played an old Gibson mandolin and a vintage LG-1 guitar that’s among his favorite instruments as well as a J-45 that was lying around the studio.
“For me one of the coolest things to happen around here is when Gibson opened the Memphis plant in 2000,” he says. “At the same time, a friend gave me an ES-175 and after Shake Hands With Shorty, Gibson embraced me as an artist and gave me a bunch of Les Pauls. My favorite guitar right now is my 1954 ES-125. It’s my main studio guitar for electric tracks. It’s got the old P-90s. That’s the way I like to roll, although I use humbuckers for stability on the road.”
Dickinson also says he’s found the perfect model for touring with the All Stars. “I’m playing ES-335's with the band, and they’re ideal. They have to cool tonal properties of a hollowbody, but I can turn them way up.” The guitarist is so sold on the ES-335 that he’s working with Gibson’s luthiers on a signature model, to be unveiled later this year.