Interview: Luther Dickinson Chats About New North Mississippi Allstars Record, ‘Prayer for Peace’
"It's so much fun to play this music."
When you're sitting in a room with Luther Dickinson, it's hard not to feel instantly and spiritually connected to his amazing world of music. It's a world forged long before Dickinson himself picked up a guitar — partly by his father, legendary record producer Jim Dickinson — and his respect for and relationship with that history is extraordinary.
"Dad and his friends were pre-hippie bohemian beatniks," Luther Dickinson tells The Boot as he relaxes in the basement of New York City's Bowery Ballroom before a recent gig. "It's that generation of [Bob] Dylan and Jerry [Garcia], the guys who grew up before rock 'n' roll, who grew up on the radio. But it wasn't just music — they were reading the counterculture, too."
The depth with which those artists consumed and created was like nothing that preceded them: "It's that generation of song collectors, man," Dickinson says. "The Memphis community repertoire is deep: John Fahey, Bill Barth, Dick Waterman ... The college students came from California and up north and came to Mississippi and re-discovered John Hurt, Son House, Skip James, and plucked these guys out of obscurity."
And as a young kid, Jim Dickinson was watching all of it unfold. As his son recalls, "He loved the records, and he was always reading. Once everyone got together and they started having the Memphis Country Blues Festival, that's where the 'world boogie' began.
"The young kids were reaching for that music. They loved it and were fascinated by it," Luther Dickinson adds, "and the blues masters couldn't believe it! It was a wonderful time."
We grew up with the world boogie.
As the world boogie grew and grew, so did Jim Dickinson's family. First in Memphis, then in North Mississippi, the producer and his wife Mary raised their sons, Luther and Cody.
"We grew up with the world boogie," Luther Dickinson says excitedly. "Even though we lived right there, I didn't know about guys like Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside; I mean, I knew about them, but I didn't know about them until Fat Possum Records. Fat Possum turned that out, and that was a magical time, and it was all happening again. It was electrifying to be in Mississippi in the mid-'90s. All of a sudden, there it was. We had musical families right in my backyard, fueled by psychedelia and corn liquor moonshine. It changed my life."
One of the biggest turning points in Luther Dickinson's life was when he was befriended and mentored by one of the greatest blues fife players of all time, Otha Turner. Turner took Dickinson under his wing, and though Turner died in 2003, Dickinson is still connected to him, as he and Turner's granddaughter, Shardé Turner, remain partners in crime.
"All those greats passed on. Our father passed on, almost everyone passed on. But, it's happened again, this new generation, this new music," Dickinson notes in a somber tone. "Right now, we're disguising the traditional music in dance beats and modern production and distortion ... but it's that repertoire that has to be protected."
Luther and Cody Dickinson are doing their best in the new generation with their inimitable blues-rock outfit North Mississippi Allstars.
"You know, we mixed our first record, [Shake Hands With Shorty], on a piece-of-crap board, and it changed our lives," Luther Dickinson remembers. "But this new one, we really honored the whole process."
The "new one" of which Dickinson speaks is the Allstars' brand-new record, Prayer for Peace, out Friday (June 2). The "process" is the all-encompassing journey that he and his brother went on to create it.
"This record has been the smoothest ever," Dickinson says with a huge smile on his face. "We made the record on the road: We recorded for a few hours in Brooklyn, a few hours in New Orleans, a few hours in St. Louis, a day at Royal Studios in Memphis."
It was that session at Royal Studios that was actually the beginning of Prayer for Peace: The great Boo Mitchell sat behind the board while the Dickinsons recorded, and Dickinson gives Mitchell the credit for injecting the perfect vibe into the album.
"You know, he was "Uptown Funk," man," Dickinson tells The Boot. "That was recorded right there. Boo is just magical."
Another guy to whom Dickinson is quick to dole out credit for the Allstars' new LP's sound is Buddy Miller: "He's the one who showed me the light," Dickinson admits.
"Not only are we playing live in the studio, but we're singing live. A while ago, [Miller] told us to not overdub: If you need a banjo, call the banjo player; if you need voices, call the girls and wait for them. Get everyone together and do it," Dickson continues. "And the underlying theme of all of that is actually committing to live vocals. If the artist commits to that, 98 percent of the problems are solved -- the record is made! All the classic music that I like, that's how it was all made."
While some artists might struggle putting a record together in a number of different studios and cities, the North Mississippi Allstars seemed to thrive in those conditions.
"For us — especially being sons of a record producer — for us to come in and casually record while being in the mindset of being on the road, that was actually really easy," Dickinson explains. "That's smooth, you know? We're in and out with that live spirit."
Our father used to say, 'Honor the process. Trust the process.' On this one, we let everybody do their jobs. The process was honored.
The process, though, wasn't just about Luther and Cody: "Chris Bell mixed the record, and he glued it all together. Jeff Powell, who cut the vinyl at Sam Phillips Recording, he's got a lathe in there and did it all, and they even cleaned out the old Sam Phillips echo chamber," Dickinson notes. "That echo chamber, it's this organic wall of magic, man; I get goosebumps thinking about it. My whole career, I never had a real echo chamber. I knew about it, but it never dawned on me that it was the tangible, physical thing that's always been missing."
As he reflects on the journey of Prayer for Peace, Dickinson remembers the advice his dad always shared: "Our father used to say, 'Honor the process. Trust the process,'" he says. "On this one, we let everybody do their jobs. The process was honored."
And when the process is honored, everything works out.
"I believe, in my heart, that music is a realm in which we can commune with musical spirits," Dickinson announces. "It's a place where we can all transcend. It's in my heart. It's what I believe, and that's what I'm doing when I'm playing music."
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