North Mississippi Allstars Share a lingering Legacy with Ongoing Promise and Passion
(from the album Set Sail available on New West Records) By Lee Zimmerman
It’s not always easy living up to expectations, especially when there’s a high bar established by one’s forebears. For Luther and Cody Dickinson, that standard was set early on by their father, the legendary Jim Dickinson, a remarkably prolific producer and on-call studio musician whose work helped establish a precedent, not only for his sons, but for an entire generation of players as well, specifically those spawned within the legendary realms of Muscle Shoals, Criteria, and Sun Studios.
Notably then, Luther and Cody remained resolute and established a distinguished legacy of their own. With 25 years, twelve albums, four Grammy Award nominations, and a track record of touring and teamwork, the Dickinson brothers have built their brand, and band. North Mississippi Allstars are one of the prime movers of today’s new southern sound, a style and genre that finds itself in sync with such archetypical and influential outfits as the Allman Brothers Band, Tedeschi Trucks Band, the Black Crowes, and the iconic blues and R&B artists that set that course early on.
It’s appropriate then that Set Sail, their exceptional new album — and their lucky thirteenth overall — expands those family ties by welcoming others artists into the fold, specifically, bassist Jesse Williams, vocalist Lamar Williams, JR., son of renowned Allman Brothers Lamar Williams Sr., and legendary soul singer William Bell.
Then again, those blood bonds have always played an intrinsic role in terms of North Mississippi Allstars’ trajectory. The Dickinson brothers established the band — and their brand — in 1996 as a loose conglomerate of like-minded musicians determined to purvey and promote the sounds of their rural realms. While the line-up subsequently shifted over the course of the band’s collective career, they’ve managed to remain true to the roots of Blues and R&B that have inspired them since early on. It has also allowed them to offer their skills to others, including any number of artists they’ve produced both individually and in tandem — Samantha Fish, R.L. Boyce, Lucero, Amy Lavere, the Birds of Chicago, Ian Segal, and Otha Turner, among any number of others. They’ve also shared stages with any number of like-minded artists as well, among them, Mavis Staples, Charlie Musselwhite, John Hiatt, Robert Plant and Patty Griffin, G Love, Jon Spencer, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Los Lobos, and the Black Crowes.
While Set Sail stays true to their template, it bends the boundaries as well, offering an infusion of Soul, Funk, Psychedelia, brass, orchestration, and furtive Folk sounds gleaned from the group’s seminal influences.
The Alternate Root recently had an opportunity to speak with Luther Dickinson and to get his insights about the making of the new album.
Lee Zimmerman (LZ): First off, what was it about Lamar that allowed him to make such a perfect fit?
Luther Dickinson (LD): Lamar, Cody, and I have all been part of the Allman Betts Band annual family reunion and I noticed in 2019 how open-hearted, collaborative and team-oriented Lamar is. I recognized Lamar as a potential collaborator. So as the songs came together, I sent them to him one by one and he added so much. Singing with people is one the greatest joys of music, and we have a very strong chemistry.
LZ: Being that you're all sons of famous fathers, did that enhance the relationship?
LD: Not to get heavy, but I believe music is a realm that makes it possible to commune with your loved ones, especially musical loved ones, be they separated by time or distance. Lamar and Jesse share that intention with me. We all commune with our fathers through music. Some of the lyrics are about family — past, present and future. I don’t think any concept of fame has anything to do with it, just trying to transcend and perpetuate not just family tradition, but a family feeling, all the while trying to make some ass-shaking music you can forget all your troubles to. My musical intention is to create a welcoming, sexy environment that may give you goosebumps.
LZ: As sons of famous fathers, was it a challenge early on to have to prove that you can measure up to your dad's esteemed legacy? What were the advantages/disadvantages?
LD: My musical community is largely made up of second and third generation players. We gravitate to one another and tend to take care of each other. Many of us are late bloomers — where our elders burned bright and fast and/or slow and intense, we come into our own after the torch is passed and have to step up later in the game. It’s a powerful transformation to witness and I love working with musicians that share the experience.
One advantage I've noticed growing up in a musical environment is that making music, be it writing, recording or performing, is a natural thing to generational musicians. We don't have to learn to be a musician because we have grown up watching musicians. We don’t have to invent the process and lifestyle for ourselves; it comes naturally. The advantage of naturally being a musician and/or creator overshadows the feeling of trying to live up to anything, which is just a destructive, non-creative mind trip that will keep you from ever being open and in the moment. When I'm writing, recording or improvising, I try to avoid being critical or self-aware. You really have to open up and lose yourself and be in the moment, in the music. Thinking about what I’m doing knocks me out of the zone. The worst pitfall of them all is entitlement. You have to serve the music and creative process and get yourself out of the way.
LZ: What was the connection with the great William Bell?
LD: Cody and William became friends and collaborators working on the "Take Me to the River" movie. William invited us to his studio to write together — such an honor! We had never used horns and strings in NMA, and having William gave us a great opportunity. I love the sounds of soul music with orchestration.
LZ: This album leans heavily towards funk, soul and R&B. Was there a conscious decision to lean more in that direction as opposed to the rootsy bluesy sound you purveyed prior? If so, what went into that decision?
LD: The acoustic guitar playing of Bill Withers really inspired me. I simply started recording each song with my Harmony nylon string and a drum machine and then we built the recordings from there, letting the songs come to life and our interpretations to be free. I do not try to steer the style of new music; that never works for me. I have to let the music be what it wants to be for the most part.
We were lucky because we had just come off tour, and our musical telepathy was still hot, and we were able to each capture inspired interpretations of the songs and find pleasure in making music with each other, even if it was from afar.
LZ: When you're drawing from a storied template like blues and roots, what does it take to define yourself and put a new spin on this archival traditional sound?
LD: The idea of genre has become really distasteful to me. Musical genre is a by-product of segregation and the old school music industry. I like music made by a diverse group of people for a diverse group of people. But to answer your question, we have always played roots music with modern influences; that is what comes naturally. The first song on our first album starts with obvious samples. Using modern recording to make raw music is inspiring.
LZ: Is there a symbolic meaning to the title Set Sail?
LD: The eye-opening heartbreak of how Katrina was handled never left me, and flood songs are a tradition for a reason. Just ask Noah.
The initial inspiration for Set Sail were the musicians who will never retire. The music calls and the musician hits the road. As Dylan said, ’keeping up our end of the deal’. But the song shifted into a celebration of the first-generation Freedom Rockers and Civil Rights leaders who helped spread an open-hearted example. The stance of the struggle may continue, but we won’t give up the fight and their positive vibrations will resonate in the future generations.
LZ: Other than your dad, who else did you look up to musically and style-wise?
LD: Personally working with Otha Turner , RL Burnside, John Hiatt, Phil Lesh, Mavis Staples, and Blind Boys of Alabama has been a treasure, but I've also been fascinated with the artists with similar taste of my generation — Beck, G Love, Jon Spencer, Jack White, Dan Auerbach. We all grew up with similar influences — old country blues and hip hop, punk rock and roots music. I love hearing how everyone mixes up music new and old and has their own spin on it.
LZ: How difficult -- if at all -- is it to capture your live sound in the studio?
LD: We use technology to capture and protect our first impressions, the first takes, recording music when it is fresh. Our last record, Up and Rolling, was recorded live on the floor and we really had creative group improvisations inside the songs. Set Sail was recorded from afar but we found that everyone working at their own speed in their own mindset and environment can be very fruitful. Music made in your pajamas can be really free!
The guitar solo on the song "Set Sail’ was recorded nearly by accident, completely off-hand, with very compromised audio. Ten minutes of probably my most inspired guitar playing on record took a week to fix up and make listenable.
So, while I often think of my father and other mentors when I play music, when I'm writing, recording or improvising, I try to avoid being critical or self-aware. You really have to open up and lose yourself and be in the moment, in the music. Thinking about what I’m doing knocks me out of the zone.
LZ: When you've garnered all the honors you've been accorded, do you feel the pressure to meet a certain high bar?
LD: Showing up for work, staying in the habit of writing and recording is half the task. Waiting for inspiration doesn't work for me. I have to just start and keep going, be it opening my song book or powering up the studio. The only responsibility is to the repertoire of my elders. If a musician takes you under their wing and teaches you their repertoire, they may look to you to carry that legacy of music on and keep their songs sung and played. It’s an unspoken agreement. Music is a craft, like cooking or carpentry, and its best handed down face to face.
You owe it to your teachers to share what you have learned and developed, to find students of your own and pass it down.
Listen and buy the music of North Mississippi Allstars from AMAZON
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