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Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars)


By James Calemine
October 2005

Luther Dickinson called me from Texas while the North Mississippi Allstars bus rolled onto their next destination during a tour with John Hiatt behind his new album Master of Disaster.

On September 6, 2005, ATO Records released the Allstars fourth studio CD titled Electric Blue Watermelon. Jim Dickinson, Cody & Luther Dickinson’s father, produced this fourth Allstars studio release. Jim Dickinson played with Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Dixie Flyers, Mudboy & the Neutrons, Ry Cooder, Aretha Franklin, Alex Chilton, Ronnie Milsap, Duane Allman, Delaney & Bonnie, among others in the last 40 years. Dickinson’s indelible musical print remains evident on Electric Blue Watermelon.

Luther elucidated on the band’s activities for spreading their own brand of Hill Country-World Boogie for the rest of the year.

I told Cody earlier the first time I saw you guys was July of 1990 in Memphis. Y’all were playing with your father Jim billed as The Hardly Can Playboys.

That’s it. Man that goes all the way back.

I remember thinking I wonder where these boys will be in 15-20 years, and here we are in 2005. Electric Blue Watermelon sounds great. I told Cody it’s a late, late Saturday night CD. By the time you get to the last three songs it’s Sunday morning.

Hey, I like that—that’s really good. That’s perfect because it’s not like a straight-up party record. We always shoot for that early dawn thing.

And if you’re up that late anyway by that time Sunday morning dawns--you feel like you need to calm down.

Yeah, exactly. When you’re up that late you get a little more sensitive to what you want to hear. You just can’t put anything on at that hour.

What would you say the musical intention you and your father kept for this CD?

It wasn’t like a vision, but definitely…I knew what I was trying to do—say back in the day you go down to Jr. Kimbrough’s and you watch and see the way the people in his community treated him. Just like a normal person. You could also tell that they loved and respected him in a special way also R.L. (Burnside) and Otha Turner—all these guys. I was trying to write modern day folk songs about folk heroes from my community. Y’know you got Stag O Lee, Casey Jones, John Henry, and back in the day people used to write folk songs about people. Y’know Billy the Kid…

Woody Guthrie’s Tom Joad…

Yes, exactly. So that was kind of a new thing for me. The whole record isn’t like that but I was definitely trying to bring a sense of where and what my life was growing up and it just wasn’t hill country guys, but those Memphis guys of my father’s generation like Lee Baker and his band Mudboy & the Nuetrons, and Kenny Brown. Hell, I mention Kenny Brown three times on the record—to me Kenny—I owe so much to him. He showed me the ropes and got me out on the road when I was a kid. So, it wasn’t the vision for the record, but it was definitely something I was trying to do. I wanted to write folk songs about people I grew up admiring. Two of the songs—more of rock and roll songs…see when Otha died about 3 years ago and that’s when I started writing these songs and it just made me rethink who I am and what I’m doing out here—stuff like that. Some of the lyrics are Otha’s lyrics that he used to sing on the front porch. He’d be sitting around drinking and playing songs like “Teasin’ Brown”, “Hurry Up Sunrise”, and “See What Tomorrow Brings”. There’s a large feeling of love and respect I have for Otha.

That’s a serious musical education…

Seriously—yeah. And I appreciated it back then. And I grew up loving all kinds of music, but especially old blues, but I didn’t ever think I’d get to experience it first hand…

…or participate…

…right, exactly…and that’s part of what the record’s about. Y’know, the band Electric Blue Watermelon dates back to the Memphis country-blues festivals in the mid-sixties and Lee Baker—my Dad’s friend the guitar player…

…who was later murdered…

…right…another loss the record addresses, but he had a band called Electric Blue Watermelon that backed up some of these blues guys which is definitely a reverential nod to him. But those guys had the same thing with Furry Lewis, Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes, and Mississippi Fred McDowell.

How would you say your father’s involvement with this record influenced the songs? “Bang Bang Lulu” is a great song…did someone else cover that?

(Laughs) I haven’t heard it, but I think people have done it—Ronnie Milsap or somebody—some country guy. The song goes way back. It used to be a dirty schoolyard nursery rhyme and that’s my favorite kind of shit—a dirty little nursery rhyme. That comes from Lee Baker and Furry Lewis. That song collaboration came from Lee Baker, me, and my dad. Working with my dad was almost the full circle of experience. He felt it kind of satisfied something new. It was like a shared vision—we were totally on the same wavelength. He knew exactly what I was trying to do. He was so helpful and he was proud and enjoyed it, along with all his friends—that song “Horseshoe” is about Lee Baker who lived on Horseshoe Lake in Arkansas. Working with Dad—it felt like we finally were able to make the record together that we always wanted to. He was real happy with it. He totally did his thing. We’d go back and overdub something—it’d still be the first take. That’s how he likes it.

He’s a pretty good person to have as a soundboard…

Oh yeah. We might do a second take and it might be a little smoother, and he still says, ‘Ah, the first take was still the one.’ The CD cover also has a lot of reverential nods to that whole scene. A local artist from the community—he’s younger than my Dad but he grew up in the same scene. He did the hand painted cartoon for the cover. It’s got us, Dad, Lee Baker, Jim Crosthwait…

Buy North Mississippi Allstar's Electric Blue Watermelon at AMAZON.COM

I stayed at Crosthwait’s house one time when Stanley Booth and I (author of True Adventures of the Rolling Stones & Rhythm Oil) drove to Memphis. Crosthwait hosted Stanley’s photography show.

Oh, no shit. Crosthwait got Cody started on the washboard—and then Cody hooked a pick-up to it. But no, Baker when he did those Electric Watermelon shows, he rode a motorcycle out of an outhouse wearing a dress. And at the time everyone was like, man you’re crazy!

That wasn’t something rural folk thought was funny…

This was way before hippies. But Tom Foster who did the cover art, he knew the scene.

Talk about the guests a little bit—Robert Randolph, Lucinda Williams, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band—all very formidable musicians—appear on Electric Blue Watermelon.

Robert tore his track up on the first take. Cody went up to NYC to produce a session, and Robert tore it up in one take. With Lucinda, that song is our music, but its Otha Turner’s lyrics. My Dad saw into it, and I knew it but we didn’t think of actually doing it—but when Otha sang it—it really is a duet between a man and a woman like a conversation. My dad brought in the duet idea and there was no question who we wanted to do it—Lucinda. We got to play with her three or four times especially a couple years back we hung out a good bit. I just love her. She came to Memphis and we were on the road, but Dad produced it and she just killed it. The Dirty Dozen, of course, we were on the road with them during the whole period of time when we were recording this record. On “Horseshoe” we had them do the funeral thing when you play it slow and sad coming in and happy and jamming’ on the way out. That was a real gas—the Dirty Dozen sat there and learned my song. It was an amazing experience.

There’s a changing of generations on these songs…a blurring of cultures…

That’s what it’s all about. It deals with the whole transition experience.

How long did it take to record Electric Blue Watermelon?

It ended up taking 6 weeks. We cut the record in three weeks and then we did some overdubs. Actually we cut the band tracks in a week. Then Cody was out of there. Him and Chris (Chew) killed it. Dad and I stayed there working. Then we mixed it. Luckily, we thought we finished the record for our deadline. Then I wrote “Moonshine” and I was like ‘fuck, I really missed the boat on this song sums up the whole thing’. We went back in and recorded “Moonshine”. I’m just real glad I got to put it on there. When I came up with that line, “bootleggers and the bottomland”, I was just like, ‘son of a bitch, that’s what I’m talking about.

Is that Otha Turner’s daughters singing on “Mean Old Wind”?

That’s right. We tried to think in terms of vinyl—side A and side B.

The record is strong because it’s only 45 minutes long. There’s no fat. Sometimes bands put two or three too many songs on a disc diluting the potency.

Yeah, it’s the perfect length. I’ve gotta give that to Dad. He does not believe in long records.

Double albums are okay, but…

That’s what I want to do next. A hill country revue studio record with Dave Kimbrough, Gary, Duane…

You guys should record more acoustic stuff.

Yeah, that’s a great idea.

You’ll have plenty of time to get the acoustic thing together because I’m guessing’ y’all will be out on the road supporting this new CD for at least a year, right?

Yeah, hopefully.

How was it opening for the Black Crowes on their reunion Hammerstein shows in New York City?

Oh man. Shit, we had a great time. I love those guys. They’re great. Chris reached out to us. It was Jazz Fest two years ago. We got a call Chris and some of his friends wanted to come to Tipatinas—we were playing late night. And we were like ‘Hell Yeah’—ask him if he wants to sing “Boomer’s Story” because we had that song in common. He came down and partied with us all night. At Tips we sang that song. A couple months later at Bonnaroo we invited him to sing with us again. So at the Crowes shows we got to play with them—“You Got Move”, the Stones’ “Happy”, and we did “Boomer’s Story”. What a good time. I think they sound great. I’m a huge fan of the Black Crowes and I always have been.

Talk about the John Hiatt’s Master of Disaster CD where y’all served as his band.

It’s been cool. Right after we finished Electric Blue Watermelon we did the Hiatt sessions. John had all the great songs and we cut the record real fast. The amazing thing working with John in the studio is he wants everything done live—vocals, everything. All of his records have live vocals. That’s really rare, but it creates a real honest record I think. When it’s four or five guys in a room really doing it. That really impressed me and I enjoyed it. And to be offered to go on the road with him, hell, it’s what we do y’know…

It’s a great way to expose y’all to another audience.

Definitely—we’ve been having a great time. We rehearsed for two weeks. We worked up like 28 tunes. We rehearsed in Nashville. It was like the most rehearsing any of us had ever done. John is amazingly on top of his game. The tour’s been going great. It’s all so natural.

I look forward to seeing y’all in November here in Atlanta with the Drive By Truckers.

Man, I love the Truckers.

The Dirty South is a great record.

Yeah, it is. I talked to Patterson on the phone the other day. We have a great time. Hey, I read that cover story you wrote about them. That was great-just great.

Thanks. Cody told me about the cartoon you guys will be appearing in called Barn Yard early next year.

It’s been a cool experience, but who knows. Last year we spent like three weeks out there. We basically moved to Hollywood, because every time we’d get a break from the road, they’d fly us to Hollywood to work on the movie. Hollywood is crazy—just crazy. Steve Odaker—he did Bruce Almighty, Jimmy Neutron—tons of movies. He’s like a comedic genius. He’s built the empire for himself, but he’s doing this animated cartoon called Barn Yard, and we’re the “barn boys”. They have these parties like a juke joint in the barn. It was funny because the first couple of days we were out there we were like what the fuck are we doing out here? We were like, we don’t know what we’re doing. The first meeting they had all this music they wanted to do. Some were certain songs they already had picked. We did a Meters song, “They All Ask for You”. We were like why the hell are we out here? I said let’s take these CDs, get in the rental car, drive down the strip and figure this out. We were lost and bewildered on the first day. We rode down the Sunset Strip and back, and halfway back Cody was like—‘I got it. These people in Hollywood don’t know about growing up in the country making music in a barn, and they’re looking for the Barn boys—so they called the right motherfuckers! (Laughs). It was fun because we worked really fast.

Well, when you come to Atlanta I’ll take you to Fatt Matt’s Rib Shack for the best ribs in town and some rum-soaked baked beans.

Hey, I’m down. Let’s do it.

Well, thanks for talking to us. I’ll talk to you soon.

Okay, anytime.

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