Luther Dickinson is one of my top five guitar players alive. Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Mike Campbell and Mike McCreedy join him on that list. The best word I can use to describe his tone is buttery. And I’m talking hot melted butter, the kind you dip your French toast in after you hit it with the syrup. And nobody can shred a cigar box (Lowebow) better than Luther.
Luther will bring that heavenly tone to the Sheridan Opera House Saturday night when the North Mississippi All Stars (NMA) take the stage. His brother Cody Dickinson, who tears up a drum kit and an electric washboard quite well himself, joins Luther in the Allstars. Carl Dufrene joins the brothers on bass.
Luther and Cody are the sons of musician, engineer and producer Jim Dickinson. Besides releasing his own work, he played with Ry Cooder, Big Star (one of the great cult bands in rock ’n’ roll) and played piano on the Rolling Stones’ song, “Wild Horses.”
He also produced the sole record from Oxford, Mississippi, band Beanland, which is one of my favorite records of the 1990s. Despite the fact that most people are not familiar with him, those in the know refer to him with deference. Apparently, he oozed cool like honey flowing from the bee. Dickinson played keyboards on Bob Dylan’s 1997 album “Time Out of Mind,” the album that put Dylan back into relevancy after years of obscurity. Dylan wrote after Dickinson’s death, “Jim Dickinson is that magical musical maestro from Memphis. He was the kind of guy you could call to play piano, fix a tractor or make red cole slaw from scratch.”
Austin-based music writer Nick Patosk said, “There are cool cats and there are cool Memphis cats but no one, not Elvis, not Jerry Lee, not even the Wolf came close to epitomizing Memphis and cool like Jim Dickinson did. He was the Top Cat Daddy, an inspiration, a mentor and my friend.
“If you knew his music and understood his role as one of the links between black and white culture and between blues and rock and roll, you know what I’m talking about. If he is unfamiliar to you, now’s as good time as any to get to know him, even though he’s checked out of the motel.”
The apple tends to fall close to the tree, and as Dickinson tweaked the dials in his home studio in Hernando, Mississippi, Luther and Cody soaked up all the soul and cool in the air and soon they were writing songs with their dad when they weren’t heading out to Junior Kimbrough’s famous juke jive in Chulahoma.
Junior’s was the center of the universe of North Mississippi hill country blues (along with an annual picnic that is a bucket list journey for me). If you are not familiar with this subgenre of the blues, I am opening a wormhole for you as you will soon encounter artists like Mississippi Fred McDowell, Kimbrough, Robert Belfour and the spokesman for the genre R.L. Burnside. A good primer is the documentary “You See Me Laughin’: The Last of the Hill Country Bluesmen.”
Hill country blues is characterized by heavy guitar riffs and relatively few chord changes, which puts a heavy emphasis on the groove and led some to refer to the music as “hypnotic boogie.” I can attest as I have personally been hypnotized by the boogie of the NMA.
Burnside had a monumental influence on Luther and Cody and the brothers backed him many times over the years, most prominently on the album “Hill Country Revue,” which was recorded at the Bonnaroo Music Festival.
I have seen myriad iterations of the NMA, but particularly with Luther, which sheds a little light as to why he is one of my favorite guitar players alive.
The first time I saw NMA was when they opened for Widespread Panic at Red Rocks in the early aughts. At my first show, I was more mesmerized by Cody because he plays an electric washboard, which was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The band left an impression on me and I bought their debut record “Shake Hands With Shorty,” which went on to be nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
This was my first introduction to North Mississippi hill country blues as every song on it pays homage to the Friday night music of Junior Kimbrough’s Juke Joint. R.L. Burnside’s “Po Black Mattie” and “Goin’ Down South,” Junior Kimbrough’s “All Night Long” and the three Mississippi Fred McDowell tracks were all fantastic. I was hooked. I was particularly drawn to Burnside and bought several of his records.
And when I discovered R.L. Burnside’s album “Come On In,” it was over. That album is another top record of the ’90s for me. It was produced by Tom Rothrock, who, at the time, had recently produced Beck’s masterwork “Odelay.” Rothrock took Burnside’s deep blues and added hip-hop, electronic music and sampling in a most satisfying way. The song “It’s Bad You Know” was featured on “The Sopranos.”
The next time I saw Luther was seeing the aforementioned Hill Country Revue at Jazz Fest in 2002. This is where Luther cast a spell on me. I was third row and watching him riff with Burnside was extraordinary. It was clear that one master of a genre was passing it on to another generation.
A year later, I went to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to shoot a video of Jojo Hermann from Widespread Panic and his band The Smiling Assassins that included Luther and Cody. I had recently finished shooting a movie with Widespread Panic and the Smiling Assassins had an album out. I shot a music video of the band performing one of the Smiling Assassin’s songs “Don’t Look Down.” The idea was to cut the footage with some footage we shot of a friend of mine, Brenton Reagan, climbing in Ouray (“Don’t look down if you’re scared of heights,” he said.). It is the only time in my career that we had problems with the footage, so much so that it was unusable. Unfortunately, the video never got finished but I keep on threatening to cut the live footage we shot in Tuscaloosa into its own video.
In 2007, Luther joined The Black Crowes, replacing Marc Ford. Over the next several years I saw three Crowes shows and my main recollection is I felt sorry for Rich Robinson (the Crowe’s other guitar player), because Luther was so ripping that it didn’t seem fair for someone to have to come in after or before him. Luther was mind-blowing on “Thorn In My Pride,” “Wiser Time” and other Crowes tunes.
I’m a little vague about the year, but I once went to a Wednesday before Jazz Fest show at the Maple Leaf, a small club that fits about 150 people and which I have argued is the best music club in the U.S. and maybe in the world. Luther appeared along with Alvin Youngblood Hart, another musician with whom the Dickinson brothers are tight. Alvin is a friend of mine who recorded some score pieces for “Scrapple.”
I went to the show and was blown away when Luther walked out with a bass around his shoulder. “No way,” I thought. He and Alvin proceeded to crush the Maple Leaf with Luther shredding the five-string. Then Luther called out, “Does anyone here play the bass?” Someone stepped on stage and took the bass from Luther. (This is why the Maple Leaf is the coolest club in the world). Luther grabbed a guitar and he and Alvin tore the roof off of club.
At the Ride Festival in 2015, The Allstars came to Telluride for their own show and a show at the Sheridan Opera House. I was working for the Ride at the time producing all the night shows. At the Sunday Panic show, Luther and Cody guested with Panic for a blistering version of JJ Cale’s “Ride Me High.”
They then headed over to the Opera House for sound check, which meant I had to go with them. It was just me, Cody and Luther at the theater and it was super cool watching the guys tune and sound check, though I did have a serious case of FOMS (fear of missing something) as Panic ripped through an incendiary second set that looked like this — Driving Song > Chilly Water > Papa’s Home > Drums > Papa’s Home > Driving Song, Arleen> Red Hot Mama. If you speak Panic, that means heat.
In 2016, the Allstars came to Ride Fest and played a North Mississippi Osborne show at the Blues Pavilion in Town Park that was fantastic and a Town Park show the next day as the Allstars that was equally dynamite.
The closing night Allstars show at the opera house shut the 2015 Ride Festival down in style. Saturday night, the Allstars will take the same stage. Fortunately, the Sheridan Arts Foundation recently put a new roof on the historic building, because the Allstars may very well blow it off.