THE BLUES EDUCATION OF LUTHER DICKINSON

 

Guessing which career Luther Dickinson ended up with is easy after hearing what kind of childhood he had.  “My father once told me, “You got a car, and a guitar, and an amp. Go see what you can hustle up.”  So…did you guess what Luther’s doing these days? I bet you came close.   

Luther’s the lead guitarist, lead vocalist and driving force behind the fabulous North Mississippi All Stars, who have made their mark and more on the blues-rock & jam-band scenes over the last eleven years, beginning with their Grammy nominated debut, “Shake Hands With Shorty” all the way up to the release of their latest 2011 studio release, “Keys To The Kingdom.”  In between, it’s been a semi-meteoric rise of sorts for the uber-talented Mississippi-born trio, all the while keeping very true to their roots by putting out a sound that’s one part true Mississippi blues and one part fuzzbox power trio rock and roll. But where did their sound come from?

The musical indoctrination of Luther Dickinson and brother Cody, the band’s drummer, co-songwriter, vocalist and instrumentalist, began while growing up in rural Mississippi. The boys’ father Jim Dickinson backed up Aretha and Dylan as a session player, played piano on the Stones classic “Wild Horses” (Jim’s quoted in Keith Richards’ recent bio, “Life”, talking about the making of the song) and produced the Replacements’ alt punk epic, “Pleased To Meet Me”, so yeah, music was all around the boys from the start.  Fourteen year-old Luther learned some of his now-lauded chops studying the Replacements’ groundbreaking leader Paul Westerberg as he played and wrote songs during Dad’s sessions. Oh, and there’s mom Mary, who taught Luther how to tune his guitar and worked for music pioneer Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records. So be damn sure that most of the Dickinson brothers’ love of music is definitely steeped in their genes. 

The Dickinson family at home in Mississippi: (L-R) Luther, Jim, Cody and Mary.

Jim Dickinson was an instrumental part of the All Stars’ birth and evolving sound, but unfortunately, he died in 2009. Luminaries across the music community mourned the loss of the legendary elder Dickinson, but no one more than his sons; in fact, the All Stars latest record is largely dedicated to their daddy, he is credited as the album’s producer even though it wasn’t started until after he passed away, and many of the songs deal directly with the loss of their Dad. But looking back, Luther is clearly thankful to his parents for cultivating such a musically open childhood that paved the way for his passion to take shape.

“They allowed us to do our thing in our late teens and early twenties, it was such a cool and creative environment,” Luther told me in a recent interview. “We were at the house just experimenting, messing around and gettin’ our act  together, with all these amazing musicians around.” 

But Luther’s true calling came from neighbors who lived just up the road. A virtual who’s who of Mississippi hill country blues legends including R.L. Burnside and Otha Turner, as well as Fred McDowell and Junior Kimbrough became an intimate part of the Dickinson’s musical life, and hugely influenced the boys’ already rich musical upbringing. Luther’s first paying gig was backing up Burnside on tour.  

“I was into all types of music…then I realized there’s modern day Mississippi country blues just down the street! I had liked only the old, old blues, but this music was so deep and funky, it appealed to me so much,” he said. “So I said to my own band, ‘OK fellas, we’re gonna start a new band, we’re gonna play these old blues songs’, and everybody’s like, ‘What? Huh?’”  

More than a decade later, Luther, Cody and bassist Chris Chew are playing hundreds of club and festival dates a year, putting on a truly blistering live show full of their scorching roots-based originals as well as the occasional cover. Luther also has been a key member of none other than the Black Crowes for the last few years, giving the popular rock band another jolt of guitar power along with founder Rich Robinson, while also keepin’ things rockin’ with his first love, the All Stars.

Speaking of guitar power, Luther was recognized by Rolling Stone magazine as one of it’s modern day “Guitar Gods” with longtime Rolling Stone writer David Fricke saying that Luther has “soloing that coats Duane Allman and ‘67 Cream in real Mississippi dirt.”  Not bad for a wiry guitar playin’ kid from ol’ Mississip’. 

“[Being recognized by Rolling Stone] was just amazing man, it just makes you feel like you haven’t been wasting your time, and maybe the future will be alright.”

Oh, the future is gonna be just fine, Luther, even if it’s coated wall to wall in that beautiful thick Mississsippi mud.

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