Luther Dickinson

In the '80s, when Luther Dickinson was just a boy, his father would bring him to the legendary Junior Kimbrough's Mississippi juke joint and let the rolling, one chord Delta blues wash over him like a rural river baptism. Now the frontman of the North Mississippi Allstars—the band he formed with his younger brother Cody, a gifted drummer—Luther was born to legendary Memphis musician and producer Jim Dickinson, who has harnessed the musical mayhem of Big Star and the Replacements, played piano on the Stones' "Wild Horses" and Dylan's Time Out of Mind, and befriended the most gifted and underappreciated talents in Hill Country blues.

"It was so cool," says Luther of his childhood. "We're a musical family, and all those in the West Tennessee hill country—Burnside, Kimbrough, and the Turners—they were all musical families too. We just all became really close friends, and we've been recording and collaborating and touring with different variations of the community."

Besides their own electric country-funk act, which has won three Grammy nods, the ever-collaborating Dickinson brothers have toured and performed with hundreds of musicians over the last 10 years. While connecting with blues, rock, country, and gospel legends, they've also created a space for their own music, informed by generations of musicians but distinctly their own.

Live at Bonnaroo, the North Mississippi Allstars perform "Station Blues/Sitting on Top of the World" with the incredible Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, featuring the family of the much-missed Otha Turner. This video is featured in the upcoming documentary Do It Like We Used to Do.

Easy with a smile and a guitar lick, Luther was recently back in his Memphis hometown for a performance at the annual Beale Street Music Festival. "I said on the stage tonight that I remember coming here and watching my Dad and his friends play," says Dickinson. "I'm very happy and proud to keep the tradition alive and to be included."

After kicking out the jams during the North Mississippi Allstars set, Luther and his wife made their way through the sweaty crowd to the Gibson bus. Taking a seat in the back, Luther settled down with an Epiphone acoustic. "C'mon baby," he said to his wife, a pretty brunette who poked her head in and sat down across from him, hands folded in her lap.

Luther Dickinson talks guitars as fervently as though he's just received his first lesson from R.L. Burnside all over again."My favorite guitar in the world is an ES-175, but I also love Les Pauls and Flying Vs," he says. And his legendary upbringing? "I'm blessed, absolutely," he says. "There's a lot to be said for hand-to-hand interaction." In fact, the North Mississippi Allstars' latest--their sixth album Electric Blue Watermelon—is a tribute to the late artists who shaped his sound from boyhood to the present. The album was produced by none other than his father Jim.

Your family has worked with so many amazing musicians.

Yeah, definitely. My father and his friends were fortunate enough to get to know Furry Lewis and Fred McDowell and Robert Wilkins and Bukka White and Sleepy John Estes and all the first generation blues guys that were rediscovered in the late '60s.

Growing up in my family, with their friends and their band, I was always familiar with all those guys--especially Furry Lewis--a Gibson player himself. I always loved the blues, and of course the classic stuff too, like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf, but also I was doing my own thing. I loved Black Flag and Van Halen and jazz and rock 'n' roll and country.

What really was cool in my lifetime is I got to know R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough and Otha Turner, and I had a very similar experience with those guys and their families that my father's generation did with Furry Lewis and Bukka White. That was amazing, and it really blew my father's mind because he thought that type of experience was over. I did too! I mean, I grew up listening to the blues in the past tense, but then Fat Possum Records turned me onto Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside.

Luther Dickinson

What was it like first learning to play guitar in that environment?

It was great. My father showed me a lot growing up, but he said it was self-taught so you have to spend a lot of time by yourself just internalizing it and making it all make sense.

But the great guitar player Sean Lane was a teacher of mine, and a jazz player named Ed Finney was a teacher of mine. Lee Baker, who played in my father's band Mudboy and the Neutrons, was a great inspiration. Lee had a beautiful '57 Les Paul that he would just rip, but then he also had an old acoustic so he'd do country-blues and rock 'n' roll.

Later in my life R.L. Burnside came around, and he was one of the first people to ever take me on the road. Kenny [Brown, R.L.'s guitarist] literally showed me the ropes, and ever since then my brother and I have been touring and trying to make our way.

Any guitar lesson in particular that you remember?

Yeah, Warren Haynes is an amazing teacher. I'll just bring up a topic or just have a conversation, and he'll tell me a story but it'll be teaching me a lesson.

I used to play really heavy strings when we were on the road with Gov't Mule back in '99, and Warren told me this long story about Derek Truck's dobro, which used to be Bukka White's dobro. But anyway, it had really light strings on it. And he told me how good it sounded and how it felt so good, and then months later it dawned on me--wait a minute--Warren was trying to tell me to get some lighter strings. Because I was playing huge strings. So even with guys like that, I still continue to learn. I'm really blessed.

You and Cody have collaborated with so many amazing musicians.

Yeah, I'm really fortunate with that. Just growing up in a musical environment has made me be able to do that. It's so, so amazing. In the early days we got to collaborate with John Medeski and Robert Randolph and the Word and that was incredible. And we've known JoJo Hermann from Widespread Panic and collaborated with him; and John Hiatt; and I used to play with Lucero, those guys; and Burnside; and the Lee Boys, a great gospel group; and Sacred Steel, and who else? Rich Robinson from the Black Crowes. He's really great. We just got to know him out on the road and struck up a friendship, and we've been playing shows with him called Circle Sound. It's for fun. It's really cool. He's got an awesome guitar collection, man!

What Memphis artist are you excited about right now?

Lucero. I love them. Ben [Nichols] is a sweetheart. They all are. My brother produced their first two albums. They're so good. [Plays a lick of a Lucero song.] Ben started going in a Bruce Springsteen direction on that last record, playing the keyboards.

I saw the Burnside Explosion at Bonnaroo in 2004, one of R.L.'s last shows, and watching that show, it felt like the Delta blues torch was being passed to the younger members of his family.

If you look at R.L. and his generation and then his sons' and grandsons' generations, you can really tell a whole story right there. R.L. started out on acoustic guitar, playing house parties, and then he began playing electric too because it's louder and easier. He grew up playing solo blues, and he always had a family band with his sons and his grandsons, and through them the music has changed and mutated.

Like Cedric [Burnside], he played drums with R.L. and plays with the Burnside Exploration [composed of R.L.'s son Garry and grandson Cedric]. You know, he loves Stevie Wonder and hip-hop, and he played loud and aggressive and his father, Calvin Jackson, was one of R.L.'s original drummers, but he was more old-school.

Now R.L. has passed and Duwayne [Burnside]—who's out wandering around in the crowd right now—moved out of the country to Memphis and discovered Albert King and Albert Collins, and he's more of a gun-slinging lead player.

Just within that one family you can see how it's staying alive, but it's still changing. Duwayne and the guys could all still do the back porch thing and play all the old songs, but they keep themselves interested and excited by writing new songs and keeping it growing. My brother is producing Duwayne's next solo record, and we all played on it, and it's killer. It's so good.

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