Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars has been prone over the years to write his band’s mission and way of life into his lyrics in a direct way. But it has rarely been as precise or introspective as on the last track of the band’s new album. To run awaytitled “Authentic”.
Old school guitarists took me under their wing
Stompin’ feet on the porches all night, we played and sang
Now I’m almost as old as the old ones were then
It’s time to befriend the young players and start over
Fully embracing this cross-generational mentorship cycle has been one of the Allstars’ most effective tools over its 25 years, perhaps as influential and motivating as the fat, earth-shattering beats of brother Cody Dickinson. There are a handful of neo-traditional bands with regional roots in America (Los Lobos in the veterans category and Ranky Tanky from more recent years come to mind), but there’s no such thing as the Allstars. , as they may have uniquely saved Hill Country Blues from extinction.
“I’m 49 now, you know? So I accumulate young musicians to bring them up and teach them as the old ones taught me, when RL (Burnside) took me on the road in 1997 and showed me the ropes,” says Dickinson on episode 199 of The String. He says the northern Mississippi blues, which had been largely nurtured by family lines such as the Burnsides and the Kimbroughs, is in good shape even after the patriarchs he knew have passed away. “One year I came back from the road, and there was a whole community of teenagers – some of them from my hometown of Hernando – hanging out with Gary Burnside, RL Burnside, Dave Kimbrough, Junior Kimbrough and the son of RL I was like, oh my god, there’s a whole new generation of young players on the scene.
Dickinson, the son of famed Memphic blues and rock and roll producer Jim Dickinson, tells much of that story in detailed notes for the 2019 NMA release. Ride and ride, a set of new recordings that acted as a review of the band’s origins and influences. That’s because those notes were wrapped around a set of 1996 photos, beautifully reproduced in the CD booklet, by Wyatt McSpadden.
“It was a few months before we formed the band,” Luther says. “And the music was so loud and the community was so fun and fulfilling. Wyatt came to town to document the Mississippi music scene. So we took him on what ended up being, in retrospect, a perfect Sunday. We took him to Othar Turner‘s farm, then to Kimbrough Junior‘s juke joint, and everyone was on point.” Othar Turner, in case he fills a gap, was an incredible man and musician born in 1907 who carried on the centuries-old tradition of fife and black drum music, soft woodsy riffs over parade rhythms that underpin tend the sound of the Allstars to this day. Turner’s Granddaughter Sharde Thomas, embraced that rose fife sound as his own; she plays on Ride and ride as well and went on to pursue his own varied musical career in his early thirties.
But this episode is the story of two albums, as the prolific Allstars released the new To run away for a few weeks (in digital anyway, vinyl and CD arrive on April 1st). Produced during the pandemic, it’s the first Allstars album to be recorded in layers with musicians adding parts in different studios instead of ensemble performances. This led to new sonic and musical territory, with horns and strings and a light layer of modern ambience over the powerful rhythms and themes.
“We were just following the songs,” Luther says. “You know, fortunately, we were all of the same opinion. I would start with the drum machine and my acoustic guitar and lyrics and build keyboards and electric guitars and send them to Cody. And, luckily, he felt it. We haven’t had time to experiment and create an album since our first Shake hands with Shorty (In 2000). Because we’ve been on the run ever since.
The voice of Lamar Williams Jr, son of the Allman Brothers’ first bassist, Lamar Williams, also completes a refreshed sound. “I’ve never had such a like-minded singing partner,” Luther tells me. He was inspired to invite her into the Allstars fold after seeing Williams step in in a pinch to sing with Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr at a Gregg Allman birthday show, when Parr had a failing voice. “It was just such a beautiful human moment, just so sweet,” Luther recalled. “And I was like, man, I want to work with this guy. He’s my type of cat. So Lamar sat down with us in Atlanta at our last show before quarantine. And then, while we were recording songs, I would just send them to him.
The result is a different kind of vibe than a sibling harmony or a lead vocal with a backing vocalist. Williams sings unison here, harmony there, sometimes call and response, elevating what is probably the best songwriting Dickinson has devoted to an Allstars album. And while Williams can’t be a part of every gig, he’s a full part of the Allstar collective, and audiences will regularly see him sing those songs on the road. It’s all part of growing the family and carrying the message of Southern roots music.
And from Set Sail, “Never Want To Be Kissed” sung by guest vocalist William Bell.
North Mississippi Allstars (with William Bell) – “Never Want to Be Kissed” [Official Video]