Luther Dickinson is one of today’s outstanding blues musicians, well known for his work with the Black Crowes and North Mississippi Allstars. He’s also got a number of top notch solo albums to his credit – Hambone’s Meditations, Rock ‘n Roll Blues and now Blues and Ballads, Parts I and II. This latest release is a joy from start to finish, featuring twenty one songs from throughout Luther’s career, new songs, North Mississippi Allstars songs and old favourites – all stripped down, loose and relaxed. It’s the perfect vehicle for Dickinson as carrier of the Mississippi Hill Country blues torch.
Down at the Crossroads caught up with Luther at the Blues Kitchen in Brixton, London, the third of three nights at the Blues Kitchen’s three London venues. Luther played an outstanding set of his psychedelic folk-rock blues, showing why he is renowned for his slide playing and guitar playing generally. Armed with a couple of Gibson Les Paul semis, his Martin Dreadnaught and a guitar he had fashioned out of a coffee can, Dickinson rocked the joint with a selection of songs from Blues and Ballads as well as fuelling Bob Dylan, Fred McDowell and Jimi Hendrix in his own inimitable, captivating style.
He’s a great entertainer, frequently interacting with the crowd and regaling us with stories and comments throughout. Particularly moving was his story about his father, when very ill, suggesting he record Dylan’s Stuck Inside of Mobile, as a one-chord Hill Country blues. “There are things in life which will disappoint you,” Jim Dickinson told his son “but not Bob Dylan.” That’s about right, isn’t it?
Luther, easy-going and relaxed, greeted me warmly as I waited for him before the gig and we found somewhere quiet to have a conversation. We talked about the new album, passing on the musical tradition, the Saturday night-Sunday morning tension in American music and the enduring power of the blues.
DATC: Luther, thanks for talking to us at Down at the Crossroads. First let me ask you about your new album, Blues and Ballads, which has had a great reception and great reviews.
LD: Fooled ‘em again! It’s cool because I realized that the more casual and honest and humble the production and recording experience is, the more people like it. And that’s a good lesson to learn.
It’s very, very pared down, it’s very acoustic and it’s all live. Buddy Miller, the guitar player and producer in Nashville, he really turned me around. He told me – because we were jiving each other about working together, because he’s busy and expensive!; and I was like, come on, Buddy, just produce this, and he was like, look, just don’t overdub. And it’s so true, just commit to live vocals; and if you need a fiddle player, then call the fiddle player, and if you need background singers, then call ‘em up and wait for them. Get everyone in one room and capture a real performance.
And you know, we grew up with our father, Jim Dickinson, who was a great producer, but he taught us to make the band tracks first and then the vocals being secondary, And that’s a great way to make records too, but, it’s really been liberating for me to just commit to the live voice. It’s all about the voice.
DATC: You know I thought the vocals in this record were perhaps the best you’ve ever done. Really, really good, really noticeable on this.
LD: Thank you.
DATC: The record’s called Parts I and II. Does this imply more to come in the same vein?
LD: It’s a double album. The inspiration for the record was the song book context. I wanted to make a songbook, because I love songbooks, folk songbooks, hymnals, whatever. I grew up pre-Internet, I learned from the library, I memorized every book in the Hernando Mississippi library. My grandmother’s hymnals, the early folk songbooks, magazines. I love sheet music, and so I wanted my own proper songbook.
So I re-recorded my favourite songs in a folk fashion befitting a folk songbook, and a handful of new ones, so it’s volumes one and two – and the plan is, my previous solo record, Rock ‘n Roll Blues, I would like to have it transcribed – that would be volume 3, and then have another solo record, Hambones Meditations, [an instrumental album] – transcribed as Volume 4.
And then it starts amassing, you know – it’s not like I’m going to record another Blues and Ballads anytime soon. But the plan is for the songbook to grow.
DATC: The song book is only available with the vinyl, isn’t that right?
DATC: And you’ve got a stellar cast on the album. Jason Isbell, Jim Lauderdale, Amy LaVere, Shardé Thomas, JJ Grey, Charles Hodges, Jimbo Mathus. And one of my favourites – Mavis Staples.
LD: Aw, Mavis is the queen! That was the beginning of the whole record.
DATC: She does Ain’t No Grave, which I know is a very personal song. But it’s wonderful what she does with it.
LD: Aw, man. We went to Chicago, she said she wanted to record the song, and I wanted to make sure that happened. If she wants to record one of my songs – let’s make that happen! So I set it up with my band, Amy LaVere and Shardé Thomas, and we go to Chicago and we get the track – first take – band and vocals, first take. And Mavis shows up about an hour later and we get her first take. She sits and listens and reads the lyrics, and it breaks her down. She starts crying.
DATC: It’s a very moving song. I know the context of it. [the song was written by Luther after the passing of his father, producer/singer/songwriter Jim Dickinson in 2009]
LD: My father passed in ‘09. I wrote a lot of songs when my father passed – as he was ill, and when he passed. But that one just came – I woke up one morning, I was on the tour bus and I wrote that song down before I even turned on my light, in my little bunk. It just came out, top to bottom. And at the end of the night, after the concert, I took my songbook and my guitar into the bathroom of the bus and the melody came just as easy. But it was hard to record that song, originally, for Keys to the Kingdom in ‘09. So I asked Ry Cooder to help me with that song. It was so easy to write but I couldn’t figure out the right interpretation. And Ry just played slide guitar – like the master that he is – and I went, of course, slide guitar! And once again there’s another great lesson.
That is another version of the Buddy Miller story, just to keep things simple. And Seasick Steve, he grabbed me by the shoulder and was like, you are the link, you grew up with Otha Turner and R L Burnside, and you are the link, and you’ve got to keep it primitive. He literally shook me and said, “Keep it primitive.”
And you know, my brother and I, we’d fallen prey to, you know, delusions of grandeur and over producing records, but Ry Cooder, just simply playing it on slide guitar and Seasick Steve yelling at me and Buddy Miller saying don’t overdub – these things have formed my new production aesthetic. It’s been really fruitful.
So Mavis came in and she was just first take, and that was the beginning of the record. And every other recording was just as casual. I had a handful of songs. So if I was in Memphis, I’d call my Memphis friends or if I was going to be in Nashville, I’d call my Nashville friends. JJ Grey had always liked Up over Yonder, so I knew I wanted to get him to sing on it . Because we’d been touring together. The songs are like snapshots of who we’re with, when we’re making the record.
DATC: And is Ain’t No Grave a song that you sing often?
LD: Not in night clubs. Unless it’s requested. You know, it’s a sad song about losing a loved one. I don’t want to violate the escapism of having a good time, but if people request a song…but I’m not going to sing that song over a loud crowd, or people who wanna dance.
DATC: There are a number of songs on the album with a gospel feel or theme (Up Over Yonder; Ain’t No Grave; How I Wish My Train Would Come; Let it Roll); we get that coming through in your work over the years, all sorts of scriptural references and echoes, old hymns – what’s the inspiration for this sort of material?
LD: It’s when my loved ones pass away. I always celebrate them when they pass away. And it started with Junior Kimbrough, Otha Turner, and then Lee Baker, my father’s guitar player in Mudboy and the Neutrons – he was murdered, you know. I’m a folk musician, I play loud psychedelic blues rock, but I’m a folkie at heart. And it dawned on me, like, Cassie Jones, Stagger Lee, once upon a time, these were just men that walked the earth, It was folk songs that made them legends. So I thought, I’m going to start celebrating my heroes, and sing about Kenny Brown or sing about my father, or Otha Turner, and make them my folk heroes, celebrate them in song.
And then the biblical imagery, growing up in the south, my grandmother played piano in the church. And I don’t talk religion or anything, but I love gospel music, it’s just a positive feeling, and I think a lot of musicians relate to it. But once again it’s not right to play it in the night clubs, it’s not appropriate. Maybe slip one in at the end, you know! And then the imagery – funny thing is, I’ve never studied the Bible. I mean I’ve poked around, but when you do pick it up, it’s like, oh my God, here’s this song, here’s that song. Every soul and R&B song has a biblical reference, and the blues too. To be honest, I’ve learned more from Pop Staples or Blind Willie Johnson about the Bible than I ever did reading it myself – listening to Samson and Delilah – you know what I’m saying?
Thing is, I just love the vernacular. I love the phrases of folk music and blues music and conversation with the elders, and the biblical stuff slips right in there. Bob Dylan’s a master of this, and also Robert Hunter [Grateful Dead songwriter]. Ain’t No Grave – there are multiple songs entitled that, or Rollin’ and Tumblin’ or Let Your Light Shine, or whatever – these phrases, they have weight, when people hear ‘em, they have, like, repercussions, sub-conscious repercussions. All those phrases I’ve internalized over my life, that’s the oral tradition of making it your own, and making it your own story, using the timeless vernacular of our culture.
DATC: So you mentioned Blind Willie Johnson. There’s kind of thread over the last century – from Blind Willie Johnson to Robert Wilkinson to Fred McDowell to Gary Davis to Kelly Joe Phelps, and many others. Why do you think that is, given the other darker side of the blues where some church goers felt it was the devil’s music, and the myth of the crossroads and mojo and all of that?
LD: Well, Robert Wilkins quit playing blues so he could become a preacher and only play gospel music. Son House went back and forth. Fred McDowell, he was a bluesman, but he played in his local church every Sunday. But when he passed away, they wouldn’t bury him there, because he was a bluesman. And that church is in Como Mississippi. Rev Robert Wilkins’ son is the preacher in that church [Hunter’s Chapel Church] now, and even he is a bluesman that preaches. In that culture, it’s a very treacherous line.
And it still goes on. Like, I’ve known Robert Randolph since before he was a professional musician with a career, and he and the Campbell Brothers, they don’t play in church any more. The Campbell Brothers were kicked out of church. Many, many of the sacred steel musicians have been pushed out of their churches for one reason or another. And there’s a new batch of sacred steel players playing in the church, but – they don’t know the tradition or the history, they’re just starting with Robert Randolph. So with sacred steel, the roots have been cut off and the new growth is going to be starting from scratch.
But, it’s just that American experience of church and blues. You know, Saturday night, Sunday morning.
DATC: I saw you talking about that a while back in a video from Grace St. Luke’s church in Memphis.
LD: Yes, I didn’t realize how emotional that was going to be. Interesting thing.
DATC: You started off playing Just As I Am on slide guitar. Took me back to my own childhood, those were the songs I grew up with and nearly had me in tears!
LD: I learned that from my grandmother. That was one of the invitational hymns… My Mom is a huge believer, teaches Sunday School to elderly ladies. It’s very interesting, I could say that I’m well balanced, because I’ve got all the extremes. I just try to navigate it!
DATC: The blues is traditional music, with a long heritage, and were essentially the music of African Americans in the trauma of the early part of the 20th century. Why has this music endured? And why does it have an appeal beyond people whose lives were as harsh as those among whom it grew up?
LD: I think there’s a human quality to it. But as well as blues, there’s also country music, Appalachian music, and music just brings people together. It did for my dad’s generation in the 50s, rock ’n roll, the 60s, music helped transcend segregation… And with the blues, the lyrics and the melodies are ancient and they just resonate, you know, and it evolves. And what I play is not Delta Blues, it’s psychedelic folk blues rock, you know – that’s just where I am – but I grew up in Mississippi, second generation musician studying songs and blues, and I will claim that what I do is modern day blues. But it’s like what Buddy Guy says, I got ten fingers, I got two hands, I can play some blues!
DATC: Thank you Luther.
Postscript: Three quarters way through his set that evening, Luther switched from the Les Paul to his Martin acoustic. First thing he played? Just As I Am on slide guitar. This being a London audience, I was probably the only person there who recognized it. Thank you Luther!