Allstars come into their own


October 31, 2003


There's a story that Jim Dickinson, the legendary producer of Big Star, the Replacements, Toots and the Maytals, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, likes to tell about his eldest son.

"The first word Luther said was 'studio,' " Dickinson told me a few years ago, shortly after his two boys, guitar-vocalist Luther and drummer Cody, had released their first album with their bass-playing pal Chris Chew as the North Mississippi Allstars. "He'd sit and watch the tape recorder run without even hooking it up to anything -- just watch the reels turn for hours."


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With this kind of upbringing, it isn't surprising that Luther Dickinson had a three-album plan laid out for his band at the time of its debut, or that its third and latest release, "Polaris," is its strongest yet.

On 2000's "Shake Hands with Shorty," the North Mississippi Allstars paid homage to the hill-country blues they grew up listening to, artists such as R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Otha Turner (Luther's mentor and an artist he eventually produced). On the follow-up, "51 Phantom," they recorded with their father and showed that they could write strong original material that melded the hill-country influence and rock.

With "Polaris," the band truly comes into its own. The musicians produced themselves, brought the potent punk and garage influences of their earliest bands to the forefront, and wrote their strongest material yet.

I spoke with Luther Dickinson as the band toured in support of the new disc. The North Mississippi Allstars come to Chicago tonight for a special Halloween show at the Congress Theatre sponsored by WXRT (93.1-FM) with psychedelic-popsters Grandaddy and the jam band Rusted Root.


Q. Catch me up on what's been happening with the band since we last we spoke -- before the release of "51 Phantom" -- and tell me about making the new album, "Polaris."

A. In between then and now, we did a whole lot of touring! And this album, Cody and I, we were just trying to do what felt right; we weren't trying to live up to any ideal we had for ourselves. The main thing for me was that this was a real collaborative project. Two of the songs, "Conan" and "Kids These Daze," were collaborations between Cody and me for the first time, and "Eyes" was a huge collaboration for the whole band that I kind of rounded up and organized. It was just a really healthy period of time for us, I think because everybody had an equal opportunity to do their thing.

Q. Knowing Cody as only an older brother can know his younger brother, did you ever think he'd grow into this role as a songwriter?

A. I was trying to encourage him to. He had two songs when we did "51 Phantom" that I wanted him to include then, but he didn't feel comfortable at the time. As he looks back on that, he says the lyrics for those songs he wasn't happy with, and he still isn't now -- he's rewriting them now. Personally, I just don't think he was ready.

We always had a sort of three-album plan. When we were making "Shake Hands with Shorty," we said, "OK, we'll do this record, this is our live set of the blues that we've been playing. Then we'll do the second record with Dad, and that will be originals. And then we'll do the third record, and we'll name it 'Polaris'! We wanted to make a double concept record -- we knew that we would try to be as ambitious as possible -- because the third record is when you finally get to be self-indulgent.

Q. So did "Polaris" turn out the way you originally envisioned? It's not a double concept album, but it is a really strong effort.

A. Well, we knew even back in '99 that we were going to record "Meet Me in the City" and "Time for the Sun to Rise." We knew that those were two songs we were going to approach even at that point. But besides that, it was just open-ended. If we were trying to make a concept album, we never really had a concept. Our father eventually said that the concept is brotherhood, and I liked that, because that's what it was -- it was about Cody and I moving to Memphis and recording at Ardent, which was a dream come true for us. We grew up around this legendary studio that has a very unique sound, whether it was the Replacements record they made there, or the Big Star records.

We just felt honored to be able to participate in that way, and I went and dragged out the Mellotron and my dad dragged out the Big Star amp. We recorded on 16-track analog, and it was the first time for us ever to record on real tape. It was just a lot of fun, and production-wise, there was a sonic quality I was trying to protect. It was a combination of recording on analog and dumping it into the computer mainly to preserve the sound of the analog tape.

Another great thing about making this record is that half of it was recorded live off the floor, first-take, the first time we made it through the tune. We always try to keep that fresh and not overkill it. But the other half was either songs that I brought in or songs that Cody brought in. What we've never done before and I really like is that we just brought the demos in and overdubbed on them, so we didn't have to try to recapture the vibe of the original. Some songs have got a toy drum set track from my bedroom and out-of-tune lead guitar that was so first-take that I was in my underwear! But it just fit, man. Overdubbing on the demos to me was a huge breakthrough because we really kept that immediacy.

Musically, the collaborative process made it different, but it was a very healthy and necessary thing for our band. After playing the same kind of material for so many years, we just wanted something different: We wanted more melody and we wanted to feel that contrast.

Q. How do you think the band has grown with all of this touring and recording?

A. Our band is a product of our environment and community, whether it's our father or the counterculture that we grew up in in Mississippi in the '70s and '80s -- like seeing Mudboy and the Neutrons -- and then also, of course, the hill-country blues that I discovered in my early 20s. With all of the greats my dad was involved with, when I discovered the hill country blues, it just changed my life.

As far as touring, with all of that time in the van and on the bus, when you're somebody like me who's so rooted at home, it dilutes you. You can start to feel disoriented, but the music keeps us straight. Like Cody says, "The music is our home." That's the one constant of the road, that every night we're there together playing our music, most of which comes from back home. So even when we were on the road and going overseas and playing rock festivals and seeing all the bands we saw, that influenced me, but it all comes back to Mississippi eventually.

Right now, it's an emotional time, with Otha [Turner] passing and us being on the road constantly. It's really dawned on me that when I was coming up, I was fortunate to be able to go to Junior's Juke Joint or see R.L. Burnside in a punk club or make records with Otha. I was a young kid following them around. But now, it's like we're the old cats, and that's really weird!

Q. Where do you see the band going from here?

A. What we've been doing recently touring-wise is really fun, because we did a run with Dave Matthews. That's a hard audience, but just to get to play the venues that he plays at is a great experience. It's like the Led Zeppelin dream of playing the arena. But the direction of the band right now, I've been working on the next record already. After Otha passed, I went through all my tapes and videos that I made in the early days of our relationship, and there was so much great music there. We would sit around and jam and get drunk, and Otha would sing when he got inspired. I've been transcribing his lyrics, and they're just these incredible songs. That's part of what I want to do on the next record, to keep that alive, because that's a very personal gift. We were just sitting there on his front porch jamming and he'd jump up and throw his hat down and start singing, and he just spoke in poetry.

Q. How did you hear about Otha Turner's death?

A. Oh, Jesus, man. My father called me; I was on the road. The family was so sweet, they even moved the funeral for a day so I could make it home. I had to get from Telluride [Colo.] to Mississippi for the funeral, and I missed the ceremony, but I got to see all the family. That was a sad day. Bernice, Otha's daughter and his manager, also passed the same day; she'd been fighting cancer for years. The family said that they went everywhere together, and they were going to leave this earth together, too. But the lesson that I learned from them, before this, when somebody would pass, I never saw them grieve, really. They were so spiritual that they had this sort of realistic view of death, and you learn a lot from that. When somebody passes, you think you're mourning, but really it's kind of selfish -- like, "I wish I could have spent more time with them." But you learn that it's really about living and valuing the people around you here and now.