In 1985, brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson would find themselves moving from their small town of Rossville, Tennessee to the verdant hills of North Mississippi’s city of Hernando. It was then that the 12-year-old son of legendary Memphis musician and producer Jim Dickinson would find himself strumming an open-tuned guitar and twiddling with a slide to the legacy that is country hill blues. It would be another decade until Luther and his brother would found the renowned three-piece MidSouth rock n’ roll band, the North Mississippi Allstars, and tour many corners of the world. However, for the Dickinson brothers’ entire life, they would be immersed in the culture and energy of rock ‘n’ roll and the blues, as well as be surrounded and raised by the prominent pickers who immortalized these genres.
Luther was born into the world of music and has been honing his art his entire life, mostly alongside his brother Cody. In elementary school, the two started their first band and even played a show or two for small crowds. “We grew up playing all kinds of trash throughout high school, all-age punk shows in Memphis and playing parties and stuff down around here. We were just growing up, messing around. It eventually got to a point that I was fascinated with the hill country blues,” Dickinson says of his chosen genre, which includes artists such as David “Junior” Kimbrough and Mississippi Fred McDowell. “I just had to start the ‘Allstars’ to participate in and continue that tradition.”
In 1996, the band had their first show at the late, great Antennae Club, an old garage-punk venue in Memphis. From that point on, "The North Mississippi Allstars" would start a musical journey that would continue for years to come. “That first show was better than any show we’d ever done. As soon as we started doing it, it felt like the right thing to be doing,” reminisces Dickinson. Two years later the band found themselves playing more and more “uptown” gigs around the MidSouth. Eventually, the band landed a weekly spot at a “cool little joint” called the Blues Hall. “It was really there on Beale Street where we found our style. At first, we were just playing traditional blues, then I realized we can use all these psychedelic and jazz methods of interpreting blues songs and improvising around them,” says Dickinson.
It was at the Blues Hall that the band would find themselves being scouted by record labels. In 1999, the band got signed to Tone-Cool Records, the first of several record label changes that ultimately led to Dickinson and his extended family of musicians starting their own record label. Having 11 releases, that label was Songs of the South, which is home to North Mississippi Allstars and the band’s side project and friends, including the Dickinson brothers’ other band, Sons of Mudboy.
“We know who our fans are and we have total control of the music and even own the art. It’s rad but it took a long time to get here. However, I would work with a major label if they were interested but what we do is not pop music,” says Dickinson. “I love the fact that The White Stripes and The Black Keys can make blues rock into pop music but I think what we do is too down in the earth.”
The band released their first full-length in 2000, Shake Hands with Shorty. Dickinson says that the success of this release changed the lives of the Hernando-based trio. The band plans to release a new album in August, World Boogie is Coming, and says that they will be touring throughout the fall to promote the new album. “It’s a lot of hill country blues. It’s nasty... a blues, party and rock ‘n’ roll record. We invited a lot of our friends and it ended up being really wild. It’s real similar to our first record but to the extreme,” said the 40-year-old guitarist. “It was time to call in the troops and make a record with all of our friends from back home, prove that it’s still going strong in North Mississippi.” The new album, along with a full track list, will have four music videos and home video-style documentary footage that tracks the lives of the band and family members. Luther gives credit to his brother and drummer, Cody Dickinson, for putting together most of these “visual” components of the album. “It’s a multimedia project, which was inspired by us making these movies that showed our life in Mississippi, along with our road experiences. When you buy the record, you’ll get a copy of all these videos,” he says.
As of recently, Dickinson says he has been doing less touring and focusing more studio work. Since 2010, Luther has worked with an array of notable artists, ranging from Robert Plant to his former band, The Black Crowes, and has headed, been a part of, or been featured on more than eight releases in the past three years. Along with being a highly regarded musician, as well as being featured and honored in Rolling Stone’s list of “New Guitar Gods,” Dickinson is also the father of a three-year-old daughter. Despite the assumed contradiction between being a touring musician and a family man, Dickinson says that a family brings a whole new level of intensity about his career. “I do whatever it takes, being a musician is my main source of income and having a family to support makes you that much more serious about it. It makes it more intense,” says Dickinson. “I hate to be away from my kid but the fact is that I have to do it. It’s really wild, it’s the opposite of mellowing you out. People use to say ‘I love your guitar playing,’ and I’d always jokingly say, ‘My life depends on it,’ but now its not just me... it’s all of us — my family.”
Luther Dickinson and his band mates will also be a part of Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp this summer in upstate New York, working alongside members of the Allman Brothers. They will be teaching kids the art of playing music together by getting them organized and giving them the initiative to start a band of their own one day, just as the legends that guided Dickinson in his childhood did. “All of this is because of my father Jim Dickinson, R.L. Burnside, Othar Turner and many others. The sound is a combination of growing up in Mississippi and playing Mississippi music,” says Dickinson “However, our music takes a lot of influence, blues, gospel and country, but by the time we’re done with it, the music has turned into just rock ‘n’ roll.”
Even with an abundance of influences, Luther and the band cite hill country blues as their primary and initial inspiration. Many of the greats of the roots music genre had a huge impact on the band, especially one of their father’s most prominent bands, Mudboy and the Neutrons, from whom the Dickinsons’ other band’s name is derived. “This is the hill country. It’s a common mistake for everyone to think that Mississippi blues is always Delta blues. That is part of our message. It isn’t Delta blues, it’s hill country blues,” says Dickinson. “We grew up around the real blues men, my experiences are so different since I was so lucky to learn firsthand from those guys. I’m a second-generation rock ‘n’ roll musician and I take pride in pushing the blues into the future; making it accessible and keeping the tradition alive. I don’t ever claim to be a blues musician but I take pride in partaking in the tradition and continuing the legacy.”
Fans, family & ROCK 'N' ROLL
How the North Mississippi Allstars are leaving their legacy
Story by SAMUEL PRAGER