The North Mississippi Allstars – Hill country revue
On days when he had time, which was less and less often during the last ten years, Luther Dickinson would go out to see his friend Othar Turner. The Mississippi music veteran, who was 90 when Dickinson helped him record his first album, would break out some bootleg liquor and the two of them would pass a few hours.
“We’d sit around on his front porch and drink moonshine and jam,” Dickinson recalls. “And when he got inspired, he’d start singing.”
Dickinson was speaking by phone from Oregon, where his band, the North Mississippi Allstars, was touring with John Hiatt. But even from that distance, it was hard to miss the wistfulness in his voice. Sometimes on those afternoons, Dickinson would apologize to Turner for the long gap since his last visit. With the Allstars playing upwards of 180 shows a year, either on their own or with any number of extracurricular projects, time could easily get away from him. But Turner saw no need for apologies.
“He’d say, ‘You wanted to be in it,'” Dickinson says. “‘Well, now you in it. What you want now? To be out of it?'”
Evidently not. As Dickinson and his bandmates — his brother, Cody, and bassist Chris Chew — enter their second decade together, the North Mississippi Allstars are more in it than ever. Between a reunion at this year’s Bonnaroo festival with their supergroup alter-ego the Word (the Allstars plus Robert Randolph and John Medeski), recording and then touring with Hiatt, and preparing for the release of their fourth studio album, the trio seems barely to pause for breath.
But that new album, Electric Blue Watermelon, turns out to be something of a pause in itself. Although it begins with a jubilant run through Charley Patton’s “Mississippi Bollweevil” and in places is as rambunctious as anything the band has done, it has a deliberately elegiac tenor.
“It’s just kind of a reflective record about growing up in such a wonderful time and place, but having that just being gone,” Dickinson says.
At 32, Dickinson might seem a little young to be making a record about the way things used to be. But from the beginning the Allstars have had an unusually direct grounding in traditions many generations older than themselves, and they have already started to see some of those places and people disappear.
Luther and Cody were teenage punk rockers when their father, veteran Memphis producer, musician and scenester Jim Dickinson, discovered (along with the rest of the world) the North Mississippi hill country blues scene. As the Fat Possum record label was bringing unreconstructed rural shouters and moaners such as R.L. Burnside and Paul “Wine” Jones to an international audience, the Dickinsons were hanging out at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint and getting a firsthand primer from guys who had been playing the music as long as anyone alive.
Among the singular talents in that outpost of the blues diaspora was Turner, who led the last surviving hill country fife and drum band. Tooting bluesy riffs on a hollowed-out sugar cane flute over the rackety battery of a small drum corps (generally composed of assorted children, grandchildren and cousins), Turner played spirited party music that was part march and part dance. The Dickinsons became close friends, and in 1998 Luther produced the first album by Turner’s Rising Star Fife And Drum Band, Everybody’s Hollerin’ Goat.
The next year, Luther pulled together a group of friends, associates and guest musicians from West Africa to back Othar on the follow-up, From Senegal To Senotobia. Like Taj Mahal’s collaborations with the kora player Toumani Diabate, that album sought to connect African and African-American traditions, giving new backdrops to Turner’s skeletal melodies. It was an adventurous project for a nonagenarian, and also a valedictory one. Turner died a few years later, in February 2003.
At that time, the Allstars had just finished their third album, Polaris, which had taken some long strides away from the rootsy rock of their first two releases. Adding R.L. Burnside’s son Duwayne on second guitar and producing themselves, they put together something both wider-ranging and more radio-ready than they had before. The album’s hodge-podge of styles revealed some previously untapped influences (power-pop, psychedelia, hip-hop), all of which made sense given the Dickinsons’ Memphis roots and their father’s own eclectic career. But while Luther speaks fondly of Polaris, he says Turner’s death served as something of a call from home.
“That just shocked me,” he says. “And you know, we had just made this experimental rock ‘n’ roll record, and it just made me rethink who I was and what I should be doing.”
The first answer to that question came with the band’s 2004 performance at Bonnaroo. Rather than take the stage on their own, they brought along something called the Hill Country Revue, including Jim Dickinson, several generations of Burnsides, Widespread Panic keyboardist JoJo Herman, Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, and the Rising Star band (now led by Turner’s grandchildren). Captured on a live album released later that year, the set was hard-edged southern boogie, drawn heavily from the R.L. Burnside songbook.
If that performance was a raucous family reunion, Electric Blue Watermelon is more like a wake — still high-spirited, but with a mournful bent. From the Dirty South rap chant that opens “No Mo” (“It ain’t the same no mo”) to a low-swinging rendition of Odetta’s “Deep Blue Sea”, many of the songs are laments for things that have passed.
The album also re-teamed the Allstars, pared back to a trio, with Luther and Cody’s father, who had previously produced their second album, Phantom 51, as well as some early sessions. (Luther and Cody also played on Jim’s 2002 album Free Beer Tomorrow, his first solo release in three decades.) Luther says it was Jim’s idea that the new album should have the feel of a New Orleans funeral parade, a party on the way to the graveyard.