“I think we’re just a rock and roll band,” Luther Dickinson tells those who would label his North Mississippi Allstars a blues outfit. But on his latest solo project, Blues and Ballads: A Folksinger’s Songbook Vol I &II, Dickinson exhibits a side heavily influenced by blues and folk, but not fully belonging to either category. It’s sweetened more than his usual blend of hill country drone and rock, often sounding more gospel oriented than anything he’s done to date, solo or with the band.
“Up Over Yonder” has a Ry Cooder/sacred steel sound backed with a churchy chorus courtesy of the Norman Sisters, Shontelle and Sharisse — Memphis-based background singers whose resume includes Bobby Rush and Erykah Badu. Jason Isbell contributes some haunting slide underneath J. J. Greys’ guest vocals.
“Bang Bang Lulu” is a second line strut that could have been written by Keith Richards, describing his lifestyle:
wake up in the evening… drink a bottle of whiskey and lay back down
I like to fuss and fight and walk the streets all night
drink from a bottle and ball in the moonlight.
Daddy Jim and fiery Mudboy — and Neutrons guitarist — Lee Baker share writing credit with Luther for this rattly, loose-limbed, Stonesy masterpiece.
Dickinson had a hand in composing all 21 tunes on the record, sharing co–writing credits on only five. Daddy Jim lent a hand once again on “Moonshine.” Despite the title, it’s not an ode to white lightnin’, but a nostalgic look at a burned-down juke joint down Highway 4, where locals used to gather out in the country for a Sunday night throw-down. The imagery here, as on all of Dickinson’s work, is stunning, juxtaposing “cracked cymbals and the Queens of Africa” with the smell of honeysuckle on a southern breeze, and “gangsta walking cross the jukebox floor” with “Butterfly Buck jumpin’ drunk outdoors.”
What makes this material the more impressive is that a lot of it sounds like it was resurrected from some long-gone troubador’s moldering suitcase, found in a tumbledown barn decades ago. “Ain’t No Grave” is a tribute to Luther’s dad Jim, who died in ’09. But the song sounds ancient and timeless, amplified by Mavis Staples’ soulful moans and sultry harmony on the chorus.
“Ol Canonball” sounds like something Eric Bibb would inhabit, mellow, steady rollin’ blues that sounds like a ’30s hobo hand me down.
Dickinson cuts loose with some blazing rockabilly on “Blow Out,” a wild child blazing out of control: “Give me a shot/ I’ll fuck it up,” he yelps, “over-heatin’ baby, gonna self destruct.”
He continues with the self–destruction theme on “Mayor Langford Birmingham Blues.” Former Mayor Langford is currently doing 15 years in federal prison, convicted on 60 counts of bribery, fraud, and money laundering while in office. “Birmingham, Alabama burnin’ to the ground,” Dickinson laments, because of the Mayor’s looting of the city coffers, “no firemen or po-leeces left to be found.”
Dickinson finally gets to that hill country thing on the penultimate song, “Shake (Yo Mama,”) a clangy, banjo-driven dirge urging a wiggly hoochie mamma who’s been shaking her assets to get by for her whole life to save some for Saint Peter:
At the pearly gates
beggin for to pass
Girl, you better shake it like it’s gonna save your ass.
Dickinson says that this release includes his dream come true: “My songbook, a printed collection of my tunes (my life), transcribed and made to look legitimate.” He goes on to say that legitimacy is fleeting because of the limited pressing. But he has underestimated the scope of today’s media, and for once that’s a good thing. This music is made to be passed around, and to be around for generations to come. Maybe not preserved totally intact, but as he wished, evolving and mutating as it goes. Just like the ebullient spirit that created it, this music is timeless. Pass it on.