Boogie On Down with the North Mississippi Allstars


By Jim DeRogatis

Whenever a young band plays the blues in Chicago, one can feel the legacy of the past pressing down upon it. But there’s something even more daunting than the ghosts of Muddy Waters and the rest of them ol’ boys. It’s a free dinnertime concert on a steamy July evening in front of the monkey house at the Lincoln Park Zoo, where a crowd of yuppies has gathered before moving on to test their latest pick-up lines during the usual round of Friday-night bar-hopping.

The beautiful people are oblivious to the three awkward young southerners as they first take the stage; most of the crowd at this radio-sponsored event is here to see headliner Steve Earle. Guitarist-vocalist Luther Dickinson, his hard-drumming brother Cody, and their hulking pal, bassist Chris Chew, ease into a groove with their own unique updates of hill country classics by Fred McDowell, Walter “Furry” Lewis, and R.L. Burnside. In the Allstars’ hands, fiery numbers like “Po’ Black Maddie” and “Shake ’em On Down” fall somewhere between a roadhouse blues band and an arena-rock power trio.

Slowly but surely, the crowd comes around. You see it first in their hips, which begin to sway in time to Cody’s circular drum patterns. Then you notice a sparkle in their eyes as Luther fires off one long, fluid solo after another—it’s as if B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix are jamming with the Allman Brothers while tripping on ’shrooms. Finally, by the time the band closes with a fifteen-minute jam that ties together a Bo Diddley riff, a rave-up gospel number, and “Station Blues” (a.k.a. “Sitting on Top of the World”), many listeners are glowing with a sort of post-orgasmic bliss. Especially the women.

Twenty-seven-year-old Luther smiles wide when he recalls the zoo gig a few weeks later while kicking back at home in Independence, Mississippi, fresh from the band’s second tour of Europe. “I read an R.L. Burnside quote where he said, ‘The blues ain’t nothin’ but dance music,’ and that’s kind of where we come from, too,” he says. “It’s just about ass-shakin’, beer-drinkin’, and people havin’ a good time. You know, a good live show of ours—whether it’s in London or in Jackson, Mississippi—it’s a real sexual vibe. It’s just… nasty!”

On this point, Muddy and Luther would find themselves in total agreement.

The Allstars officially came together about two and a half years ago, though they’ve been playing with each other in various incarnations for a decade, and they’ve all been obsessed with music for as long as they can remember. A high school football hero, Chew, now 26, grew up singing and playing the bass in church; his father was a guitar player on gospel sessions across the river in Memphis. Luther and Cody’s dad was none other than rock legend Jim Dickinson, the veteran Memphis producer who worked with acts like Big Star, the Replacements, Toots and the Maytals, and—oh yeah—Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. (That’s him on piano on “Wild Horses.”)

“The first word Luther said was ‘studio,’” Jim recalls. “He’d sit and watch the tape recorder run without even hooking it up to anything—just watch the reels turn for hours. When Luther came to me with the guitar and said, ‘Teach me to play,’ I said, ‘No, I can’t teach you, because you’ll play like me. You have to learn for yourself, because rock ’n’ roll is self-invention.’”

Luther learned all right, spending his teens playing in a series of genre-hopping garage bands like DDT and Pigs In Space. “When I entered Hernando High School, I was the only kid with a skateboard and punk-rock clothes,” he says. Meanwhile, brother Cody, three years his junior, moved from listening to Michael Jackson to recording gangsta rap on a small computer sequencer. “He’s the only one in this family who’s ever had a pop sensibility,” Jim says.

In his early twenties, Luther discovered the blues, starting with the music of Chicago and the Delta before embracing the slinky, sensual sounds emanating from the hills around him. He got to sit in with players like Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Otha Turner (who he’d eventually produce), but he never adopted the worshipful attitude of other young prodigies like Jonny Lang. To him, the music was down, dirty, and very much alive. “A lot of writers take the angle, ‘Why do young white kids play the blues?’” he says. “To me, young white kids playing black music equal rock ’n’ roll, period.”

When the North Mississippi Allstars released their self-produced debut Shake Hands With Shorty on Tone-Cool Records last May, the ten songs were all hill country standards by their heroes. But the group added a sense of rock urgency, a willingness to incorporate a wide range of other influences, and a party-hard irreverence that never quite stooped to the shtick of their friend Jon Spencer (whom they recently backed on a solo album). As a result, the Allstars have garnered an enthusiastic following that spans the musical spectrum, from indie-rock hipsters, to classic-rockers, to the fans of jam bands like Galactic, Widespread Panic, and Gov’t Mule.

“I think that when Luther went out on tour with R.L. Burnside, he saw what I saw when I went out with Ry Cooder: That no matter where you go, there are some people who like this kind of music,” Jim says. “But they’re going beyond those bounds—this is appealing to a larger audience than I ever thought it would. I told them when they came home this last time that if they don’t succeed in ever doing anything else, they’ve done something I’ve never managed to do, which is make their father proud.”

The musicians recently quit their day jobs, though they’ll still wake up to find former truck driver Chew at the wheel of the bus. (“It’s a habit he can’t shake,” Luther says.) They tour non-stop; while they were in Europe, they played the second stage at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival the night 11 fans were crushed during a Pearl Jam concert. (“They canceled the rest of the main stage acts, and we got the spillover, but we didn’t even know what had happened until we got home,” Luther says.) In between, they record—whether it’s a new EP at London’s famous Abbey Road Studios, or constant demoing at the home studio they share with their dad. (The boys live at one end of the family’s 13-acres, their folks are at the other, and the barn with the studio is in between.)

For their second full album, Luther plans on recording all originals, and he’d like his dad to produce. “That’s still to be determined,” Jim says. “I’ll certainly help them if they want it, but the more they do their own thing, the more it’s gonna be just that.” Meanwhile, the Allstars are having the time of their lives, making converts and dragging fans into the musical gutter wherever they go.

“We have so many influences mixed in that there is always something that somebody can relate to,” Luther says. “Something like that zoo show, sometimes I think, ‘Man, this might be too out there for them.’ But there’s something about the transmodal aspect and the rhythm of the hill country—and Cody’s drum style and even Chris’ driving bass—it just makes it… Well, we see these girls, and they get this look on their face, and they just start dancin’. It’s an opportunity for them to really shake it, so the guys love it. For every pretty girl we got dancin’, we got a couple of guys buyin’ ’em beers. If the girls are happy, the guys are happy. But you know, we’ve still got the best view.”

(Originally published in Penthouse, fall 2000)