Gibson signature ES-335 artist Luther Dickinson’s new solo album Rock ‘n Roll Blues is a stripped down affair that sounds raucous, raw and deeply and wildly personal. Because it is.
“This album says a lot about me,” Dickinson says of the largely acoustic set cut with a trio of friends at his late father’s Zebra Ranch Fellowship Hall and Electric Church studio in Hernando, Mississippi.
“It started as a collection of songs I had that never fit in —personal songs, wordy songs. And then I realized that they all fit together. So it’s a record about me and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s my story about growing up around music and becoming a musician. It’s a record I wanted to make before I turned 40. I was 39 when I recorded it in December 2012, and it’s finally come out now.”
Not that Dickinson’s been slacking. Over the past three years he’s also released the solo guitar album Hambone’s Meditations and two discs by his main gig, the North Mississippi All Stars, including I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone, a collaboration with his late dad, the famed producer, pianist, songwriter and raconteur Jim Dickinson. He’s also appeared on albums with bluesman Ian Siegal, rockers the Black Crowes, his acoustic South Memphis String Band and his underground roots supergroup the Wandering, which includes Valerie June, Amy Lavere, Sharde Thomas and Shannon McNally. But with Rock ‘n Roll Blues just out of the gate, the 10-song disc seemed like a good embarkation point for our conversation.
What was the strategy behind making a stripped down album?
Acoustic music is such a lucky, magical genre for me. Every time I go acoustic it seems to work. It’s effortless. And these songs… I’d been trying them different ways. At first I thought, “This is a rock ‘n’ roll record” — which it is! But every time I tried to record them electric it seemed overdone or under-cooked. When I rearranged them all for the acoustic ensemble, it really came together.
Also, I feel like I would have been a poser to make it into a big rock record, because I don’t listen to that kind of music. Lately I’ve been easing into enjoying electric rock ‘n’ roll more and more, but I’ve had a huge acoustic phase. I also bought an eight-track one-inch tape machine, and this album’s the first session I did on that machine. I used two tracks for double drums — one track each for a whole drum set. That was such a great challenge, but it was also a luxury to not have all the decisions that come with multi-tracking. All the band tracks are based around the live vocal performance, and it worked!
What concept did you have for the album’s band, which is a Memphis/North Mississippi all-star cast of bandleaders in their own right, with Amy Levere on bass, Sharde Thomas and Lightnin’ Malcolm on drums, and all three performing backing vocals?
I wanted to have the double juke joint drums without cymbals. I really dislike cymbals — especially in acoustic music. And I wanted upright bass. I had done the Wandering record with Amy and Sharde, so I wanted that rhythm section with a second drummer. It was like Mother Earth — it was a perfect, beautiful rhythm section.
Let’s talks guitars. You pick with your fingers, a plectrum or a combination of both. How did that anything goes picking style emerge?
I wish I did more of the hybrid. I really love the hybrid guys. I use a pick when the song calls for it, but most of the time I just finger pick. It’s based on the Mississippi John Hurt alternating thumb pattern style. But when I take a rock ‘n’ roll solo, I don’t even know what’s going on there, consciously. If I’m playing a swinging pattern sometimes I use my thumb, but I also use my index finger for the upbeats. Once I start improvising it just becomes unconscious.
You use D and G open tunings often. What are your go-to tunings?
I used those with the All Stars a lot, but I’ve recently started tuning down to C. Most of Rock ‘n Roll Blues is in open C. When I’m singing a cappella or by myself in the car, a lot of the time I’ll naturally sing in C. Sometimes I like to tune open G down to F# because that’s a pleasant sound. I like that landscape.
You’re prolific, putting out at least two albums a year plus collaborating with other artists. What propels you?
It’s funny, ’cause to me I always feel like I’m slackin’. I like to have music in my life. My life is simplified: it’s music and my family and not too much else. I also love collaborating and hustling. I look to the classic jazz and blues era when cats were making tons of records, and the blues guys would record their songs over and over for different record labels, violating their contracts. I wish I had time to record more. I enjoy it! My second greatest joy is conceptualizing. It’s fun for me right now because I’m writing and conceptualizing more music for the future. These are things that are shaping my future and my life. The energy for that is shaped by the music.
World Boogie is Coming , the 2013 North Mississippi All Stars album, was a return to the roots for the band. Why?
It was a very conscious decision to do what we do naturally. A lot of the songs we’d been playing live, and we wanted to record those. We embrace the idea of primitive modernism — to sneak blues vernacular and riffs into a more youthful and modern sound. We started out doing that… but doing the solo projects and other records have helped put that more in its rightful place. I was so stylistically reckless in my youth. I tried to put every song and aesthetic and experiment into the one band, which was foolish, but I didn’t know any better. It felt like the one band was everything. And now everything is stronger since it’s in its rightful place.
You’ve had your signature ES-335 for a few years now. Have you learned anything more about the instrument through playing it on the road as much as you have?
Well, I may have used potted P-90s. But for me, the ES-335 is still the perfect guitar for playing rock ‘n’ roll. What I want to do is play an acoustic responding guitar — loud as God! Until this guitar, it took me a long time to find that.