On Down with the North Mississippi Allstars
By Jim DeRogatis
a young band plays the blues in Chicago, one can feel the legacy of the past pressing down
upon it. But theres something even more daunting than the ghosts of Muddy Waters and
the rest of them ol boys. Its 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
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.
but surely, the crowd comes around. You see it first in their hips, which begin to sway in
time to Codys circular drum patterns. Then you notice a sparkle in their eyes as
Luther fires off one long, fluid solo after anotherits 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.
Luther smiles wide when he recalls the zoo gig a few weeks later while kicking back at
home in Independence, Mississippi, fresh from the bands second tour of Europe.
I read an R.L. Burnside quote where he said, The blues aint nothin
but dance music, and thats kind of where we come from, too, he says.
Its just about ass-shakin, beer-drinkin, and people havin a
good time. You know, a good live show of ourswhether its in London or in
Jackson, Mississippiits a real sexual vibe. Its just
this point, Muddy and Luther would find themselves in total agreement.
The Allstars officially came together about two and a half years ago,
though theyve been playing with each other in various incarnations for a decade, and
theyve 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 Codys
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, andoh
yeahBob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. (Thats him on piano on Wild
first word Luther said was studio, Jim recalls. Hed sit and
watch the tape recorder run without even hooking it up to anythingjust watch the
reels turn for hours. When Luther came to me with the guitar and said, Teach me to
play, I said, No, I cant teach you, because youll play like me.
You have to learn for yourself, because rock n roll is
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. Hes the only one in this family whos ever had
a pop sensibility, Jim says.
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
hed 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,
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 Govt Mule.
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 theyre going beyond those boundsthis 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 dont succeed in ever doing anything else,
theyve done something Ive never managed to do, which is make their father
musicians recently quit their day jobs, though theyll still wake up to find former
truck driver Chew at the wheel of the bus. (Its a habit he cant
shake, Luther says.) They tour non-stop; while they were in Europe, they played the
second stage at Denmarks 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 didnt even know what had happened until we got home, Luther
says.) In between, they recordwhether its a new EP at Londons famous
Abbey Road Studios, or constant demoing at the home studio they share with their dad. (The
boys live at one end of the familys 13-acres, their folks are at the other, and the
barn with the studio is in between.)
their second full album, Luther plans on recording all originals, and hed like his
dad to produce. Thats still to be determined, Jim says. Ill
certainly help them if they want it, but the more they do their own thing, the more
its 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.
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 theres something about the
transmodal aspect and the rhythm of the hill countryand Codys drum style and
even Chris driving bassit just makes it
Well, we see these girls, and
they get this look on their face, and they just start dancin. Its 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, weve still got the best view.
(Originally published in Penthouse,