Review: Luther Dickinson & the Sons of Mudboy- Onward and Upward
I hadn’t heard this album until last week, but it was oddly familiar to me. If you buy it, and I highly recommend that you do, you may have the same reaction. It’s not just that I had heard most of the songs countless times, but also the way that they were performed: with love for the music, passion, and (here’s where it differs from other similar releases) absolutely no other motive whatsoever. The only thing in the (semi) modern era I can think of that comes close is the “Million Dollar Quartet” session, but this is much more intense than that.
Luther Dickinson is one of the best musicians working today. A full time member of the North Mississippi Allstars, the Black Crowes, and the South Memphis String Band (who I will review here shortly), Dickinson recorded this extremely personal, anguished album of gospel tunes three days after the death of his father, the legendary musician and producer Jim Dickinson. The results are both grievous and uplifting, creating the best pure gospel album in years. To say that this album belongs in the tradition of blues gospel such as the Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Lemon Jefferson, although true stylistically, would be far too simple and would be selling this album far too short.
Most of the record consists of songs you have all heard before (“Angel Band”, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, “Lonesome Valley”,”Softly and Tenderly”, etc), so there is really no need to go into a detailed review of every one of them. I will talk about a few lesser known tracks later, but the fact that these songs have all been recorded thousands of times shouldn’t discourage you from seeking these versions out because you have rarely, if ever, heard them performed with this much raw emotion. The musicianship on the record is stripped-down, yet flawless, but that is almost beside the point. The main reason you will keep listening to this one over and over, as I did, is the passion in the vocals and the lyrics. Dickinson isn’t the world’s best vocalist, but that hardly matters. Neither is Dylan. And he even messes up the lyrics a time or two throughout the album (all the songs here were first takes). Again that hardly matters. What matters is the pure emotion and feeling. You’ve felt it yourself if you’ve ever lost somebody you loved, yet had mixed feelings on the matter; you are sad to see them go, but glad they are through suffering and hope to see them again someday. This album captures all of that emotion and puts it on record.
The album contains two originals. The first, “Let it Roll” is a newly penned tune Dickinson wrote as the sessions started. The song sounds like a traditional African-American spiritual, as do many of the tracks. “Hear the death bells toll”, he tells us over his affecting and emotional dobro playing. The second is “Up Over Yonder”, a much more folk-influenced track written upon the death of Dickinson’s grandmother and about how “we’ll all meet again over on the other side”.
But the most affecting performance (it almost feels wrong to call it, or any of the tracks for that matter, a “performance” when the emotion is this real) on the album is “His Eye is On the Sparrow”, apparently a favorite of his father. Dickinson sounds on the verge of tears by the song’s chorus where he says that “I sing because I’m happy/I sing because I’m free”.
This album brought me to tears the first time I heard it. Remembering family members who have passed on was surely part of it, but repeated listens have shown that it mostly had to do with the honest and naked emotion found on the record. This is the kind of gospel music that has been lost to this generation, who prefer things to be smoothed out and polished. I don’t claim to be religious in any traditional sense (my own experiences and thoughts on the matter could make up another blog post by themselves) , but I have to wonder how music that has been stripped of all feeling can save one’s soul. At a time when the country is going through a collective hard time and all we hear on the radio is Auto-Tuned, computerized, inhuman noise, this, the chronicle of one man’s hard time and the best album of the year, is the answer.