The North Mississippi Allstars – Hill country revue
“It’s a very honest representation of what we do,” he says of the record’s spare, punchy sound. “It was our best collaboration with dad ever.”
It is also the band’s most personal recording — starting, improbably enough, with the title.
As Luther tells it, one year in the late 1960s, Memphis guitarist Lee Baker was booked to play the city’s Country Blues Fest. To begin the show, Baker emerged from the wings of the Overton Park Bandshell on a motorcycle, wearing a dress, with his guitar strapped across his back. It made an impression. So did Baker’s guitar playing, which over time found him gigs with everyone from Furry Lewis to Alex Chilton. He was also a longtime friend of Jim Dickinson, and the two played together in the Memphis fixture Mud Boy & the Neutrons, releasing three albums over the course of an intermittent 20-odd-year career. But the name of Baker’s band that year of the motorcycle and dress was Electric Blue Watermelon.
The album title isn’t just a fond tribute, though. It’s a memoriam. Baker was murdered in September 1996, along with his aunt, during an apparent break-in robbery at his aunt’s house on Horseshoe Lake in Arkansas. He was 52.
“In Memphis, it just sent a huge shock wave through the whole community,” Luther says. Mud Boy & the Neutrons disbanded (although they reunited earlier this year for a Memphis music festival in London), and Baker’s many friends were left reeling.
Baker’s memory is invoked in two other places on Electric Blue Watermelon. The cover, a cartoonish rendering by Memphis artist Tom Foster, shows the Allstars playing at the Overton Park Bandshell, with Baker on his motorcycle roaring overhead and Othar Turner tooting along. And the album’s penultimate track, “Horseshoe”, is named for the lake where Baker died. The song, a shuffling gospel blues, pays respects to Baker, Turner and Junior Kimbrough, whose juke joint burned down not long after his death in 1998. With a dirgey cadence from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and a midsong appearance by the Rising Star band, it sounds like the funeral march Luther says his father wanted.
“Working on the song at first was kind of hard for my dad,” he says. “But it really helped him deal with the fact that one of his best friends was killed.”
Elsewhere on the album, Luther looks back to his own musical beginnings. On “No Mo”, he remembers when “music was a mystery/When I was young, it fascinated me.” He goes on, “This is all I ever wanted to do/Now here I am at 32. I can’t complain/But thinkin’ back on the old days/It just ain’t the same.” A few songs later, on the countryish “Moonshine”, he harks again to Kimbrough’s club, “sittin’ in with the house band/And the bootleggers of the bottomland.” From most 32-year-old ex-punk-rockers, that kind of lyric would come off as so much faux-hillbilly hokum. With Dickinson, of course, it’s just what he did.
Two other tracks, “Teasin’ Brown” and “Hurry Up Sunrise”, are built on some of those lyrics Othar Turner used to improvise on his front porch. Luther had the good sense to record some of the jams, and he transcribed a handful of Turner’s loose narratives — usually stories of a randy man, a raunchy woman and (not infrequently) a fuming wife at home. The last part of the scenario plays out in the sprightly “Hurry Up Sunrise”, with a good-natured guest vocal from Lucinda Williams. Luther again credits his father: “We’d been doing it live, but Dad realized, rightly so, that it was a duet. It was a conversation between Othar and his woman, talking through the screen door.” Williams, another old friend, came over for the session.
For all the nostalgia, Electric Blue Watermelon is still a North Mississippi Allstars record, and possibly their rawest since their 2000 debut. “Teasin’ Brown” and a scuzzed-up arrangement of the traditional blues “Bang Bang Lulu” are full-on Stonesy rockers, “Stompin’ My Foot” is thumping southern funk, and “Mean Ol’ Wind Died Down” is an extended jam that rides Luther’s snaky guitar lines and his brother’s second-line beats.
As before, the Allstars offer an agreeable mix of bar-band raggedness (“We’re not great vocalists,” Luther says off-handedly) and muscular virtuosity. Not for nothing are they in steady demand as session players. Luther in particular sounds ever more like the southern guitar hero of his generation. His playing has a sweet tone that earns complimentary comparison to Duane Allman, but with enough of a punky snarl to mark it as his own. Even in concert, where the band is a favorite with the Phish-head festival crowd, Luther prefers nasty to noodly. His solos can be pretty, but they always sound a little mud-flecked.
As for his guitar-god status, Luther laughs and notes that he’s not on any magazine covers. But he allows that when he was a teenager, toying around with hallucinogens and spending a lot of time listening to music through headphones, he decided he wanted to be “a psychedelic guitar guru.”
“And now I kind of am, I guess,” he says, with another laugh. He likes when awestruck kids come up to him before or after a show. He remembers being them.
But he’s getting comfortable with the idea of not being a kid himself. His next project, he says, will be another collaboration, this time with the children of Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside — the next generation, picking up the mantle.
“That’s the position you end up in,” he says. “It’s funny. I was just a young punk kid, hanging out, when we started. Now it’s up to the younger generation. But hell, I’m not so young anymore.”
He says he was in an airport recently, waiting in line and leaning on his suitcase. “And I had this funny thought of being this old man in the airport, leaning on a cane, going to the gig. And these kids coming up, excited, saying, ‘Wow, we can’t believe it’s you! We’re going to the show!'”
There are worse ways to end up, he thinks.
“Like Othar says, Lord willin’.”
ND contributing editor Jesse Fox Mayshark lives in New York and occasionally plays a cheap Yamaha guitar very badly.