Guitar god 

For North Mississippi Allstar Luther Dickinson, the secrret is 'just play the damn thing'

The good news is that North Mississippi Allstars bassist Chris Chew is feeling good and on the road to recovery after a recent spate of health issues.

The bad news is that Chew isn't on the road with the band, and won't be at the gig Sunday as part of the Savannah Craft Brew Fest.

The good news is that Luther Dickinson, who's one of the finest blues/rock guitar players in the world, will most definitely be here. Luther and his brother Cody (drums, guitar, washboard and vocals) constitute the rest of the Allstars, and they're bringing us the same "NMA Duo" show they performed as Robert Plant's opening act on last year's Band of Joy tour.

The bad news is ... well, there really isn't any. It's all good.

Luther and Cody's dad was legendary Memphis-area pianist and record producer Jim Dickinson, who passed away in 2009. His influence on music - and on his boys - was incalculable. The brothers began the North Mississippi Allstars in the mid 1990s, playing the "hill country" blues of the area and giving it a modern, sometimes psychedelic, feel. When the Dickinsons and bassist Chew are on a festival bill, no other band stands a chance.

North Mississippi Allstars video "Hear the Hills":


Luther took a leave of absence from the trio and played second guitarist in the Black Crowes for a few years (the band is currently "on hiatus"), while Cody hit the road with the Hill Country Revue (another great band, the HCR has played Live Wire Music Hall several times).

Earlier this year, he released three albums: Go on Now, You Can't Stay Here with the female acoustic group The Wandering; Old Times There ... with the South Memphis String Band; and a solo project, all acoustic, called Hambone's Meditations.

I understand that at home, you play acoustic guitar exclusively. Why?

Luther Dickinson: Oh man, I couldn't even tell you. I just love acoustic guitar. And I play the same material. I write all my songs on acoustic, even though it's gonna be played on electric. My whole style of electric guitar is basically just trying to translate my acoustic style to an electric setting. Which is hard, but that's what I've always been trying to get across. To me, acoustic is what it's all about. I love Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman, but I'm so old-fashioned that that most electric guitar doesn't even appeal to me aesthetically. It's really hard for me to do when I'm left to my own devices.

Are you comfortable with being called, in the media, an American guitar hero? Rolling Stone named you one of the  "new guitar gods."

Luther Dickinson: Yeah, that's what I always wanted to be growing up. I'm totally down with that. I'm honored to be even considered in the shadow of those cats. But the Hill Country community, my Dad's community and the North Mississippi blues community that we grew up with, I'm just proud to represent those, and kind of keep those traditions alive.

You've been doing a lot of stuff lately.

Luther Dickinson: You gotta keep busy, man! The Wandering was just kind of a whim. I thought there's four beautiful, talented musicians from the area ... let's get these girls together and see what happens, you know? That was just an idea that really came together nicely.

The acoustic record was a long time coming. I recorded it back in '09. The South Memphis String Band is a group of friends, a very like-minded set, so we get together whenever we can.

And also a record just came out, a live record where the three of us are backing up our dad back in '06. It's called I'm Just Dead, I'm Not Gone. That's good electric rock ‘n' roll right there.

Your dad was such a presence. Was music always a foregone conclusion for you because of where you grew up?

Luther Dickinson: Yeah, and it was my own choice. When we were really young, he used to discourage us - he'd say "Don't do it just ‘cause I do it. It's a hard life." But then when he saw that we were serious about it, he started helping us, and eventually playing with us.

It wasn't any natural inclination or talent, but I always knew I wanted to be a guitar player.

Earliest memory of music around the house?

Luther Dickinson: Growing up, my favorite toy was a reel-to-reel tape machine. Back in the early ‘70s, that was the thing, before cassettes. I used to just play with them without turning up the speakers. I remember Alex Chilton tapes, around Big Star Third time, listening to rough mixes. And also Ry Cooder. I used to listen to a lot of Ry Cooder work that Dad was working on. And when he'd come back from tour, listening to the tapes. I remember some records, definitely. But reel-to-reel, that was the thing.

Would you play along with that stuff? Is that how you taught yourself to play?

Luther Dickinson: Later, yeah, playing along to cassettes and records. Especially the cassettes from Pleased to Meet Me, the Replacements record. I had all those demos and rough mixes. Dad was telling me about Westerberg's techniques. I learned a lot dissecting ... well, I think you could learn from any music you studied, but for me it happened to be Paul Westerberg and the Replacements at age 13, 14, you know?

What about the blues element?

Luther Dickinson: When I was really young, I just dismissed it. Because, you know, it was part of Dad's scene - Furry Lewis and Bukka White, Rev. Robert Wilkins, they grew up with all those guys. Especially Furry, he was ubiquitous around our community. But then, when I was about 14, I finally got turned on to it. And I was like "Man, this stuff really IS cool." And I started listening to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and Robert Johnson, Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker, all the classic stuff, you know? I got turned on to the real deal, delta and electric blues, and then Elmore James, it was amazing. Once you discovered that world it was like "Whoa!"

But that was a thing of the past that was cool to study and listen to. But then, in the ‘90s, I discovered Robert Burnside and his family, and Junior Kimbrough and his family, and O.C. Turner and his family ... I was like "Jesus Christ! There's modern-day electric country blues in our neighborhood!" It was just amazing, and that's what changed my life.

Do you remember the first time you plugged in an electric guitar and turned it up to 11?

Luther Dickinson: Yeah! I was just a little kid, man, with sucky equipment. But my dad tuned my guitar to open tuning and showed me a Bo Diddley kind of rudiment. So I was rockin' that Bo Diddley, man.

For you, is about tone, is it about feel, is it about adaptation to your environment?

Luther Dickinson: Wow, that's all very pertinent. The experience encapsulates all of it. The feel of the guitar, the tone, they all can influence how you play. The environment of who you're playing with, where you're playing and what the scene is like. But to me, what I kind of learned from my dad and eventually learned for myself, was that every night, every amp, every guitar, it's all gonna be different. Every session.

When I was a kid, I used to try and always get this imaginary guitar sound, whatever that was supposed to be. But then I finally realized to just say "Plug it in and get it to sound as good as you can, and then just accept it and move on and just play it." Just deal with it, and don't fuss about it. Sometimes it's hard, when it's unsatisfactory, but that helps you transcend the good or bad. And just move on and just PLAY the son of a bitch, you know what I mean?

Rhythm ‘n' Brews Concert

North Mississippi Allstars, Sister Hazel, The Heavy Pets and others

Where: Westin Harbor Resort, 1 Resort Drive

When: 3-10 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 2

Tickets: $25 adults, $10 ages 11-16 (under 10 free)

Info: savannahcraftbrewfest.com







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About The Author

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.

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