Nobody is allowed to decry the decline of Hill Country Blues while the North Mississippi Allstars are making music. Nobody.
In a tall, ancient brick hotel with an enormous neon sign on it’s roof, brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, the founders of the popular rock & roll band North Mississippi Allstars, casually talk about growing up in a blues lover’s fantasy.
Since the mid-nineties, the Allstars have risen to prominence with music that was built with classic rock & roll on a foundation of one-chord hill country blues and painted like a dance club. It was a childhood and adolescence around Juke Joints, blues legends and a southern musician father that instilled the brothers with a blues soul.
The two talk in vivid detail about hanging out at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint, Othar’s moonshining business, and a particularly hair-raising moment when R.L. Burnside asked them to play one of his own songs for him. While the men heap pronounced praise on the blues legends for guiding their musical careers, their reverential attitudes suggest that neither is fully aware of the global impact that their music, a result of their upbringing and musical mentors, has had on not only keeping the Hill Country sound alive, but continuing to use it to influence generations for decades.
In a little more than two hours, the brothers, along with Lightnin’ Malcom and T-Model Ford’s grandson, Stud, will march off of a stage erected in the middle of a downtown street in front of the famous Blue Note live music venue in Columbia, Missouri. Supporting the Allstars’ new album, World Boogie is Coming, they’ll stomp through an adoring audience wearing wild, theatrical masks and beating on drums in a magical, hypnotic tone intentionally bearing a distinct resemblance to the late Othar Turner. But this is not a typical blues crowd. The packed, screaming, dancing, concert-goers are college students and young people, and when the North Mississippi Allstars play “Jumper on the Line”, the audience sings every word, blissfully unaware that they’re dancing and singing to a decades-old song made by a powerful Hill Country Blues master — and that they’re unknowingly blues fans. That effect is what the North Mississippi Allstars have perfected in a way hardly any other musical force has been able to touch: remaining authentic to Hill Country and to Blues as beacons for the new generation. It’s a skill that possibly only a pair of brothers, immersed in the droning, snare-heavy vibes, sounds, and attitudes of their hill country home since childhood, can do.
The ultimate question, though, is how a band makes that modern sound out of music that realistically spans back over a hundred years — and still makes it innovative and new.
“That’s the trick,” Luther frankly laments. “But you know what? It comes naturally. We grew up around it, that music. And I studied it when I was younger and we reference it intentionally. But then by the time we’re done with it, it just naturally is more modern. For me that part’s not hard. When it comes through my filter, it just turns into rock & roll.
“There’s really no delta blues on there. It’s all Hill Country Blues because we grew up in the hills. And we did [R.L.] Burnside and Junior [Kimbrough] and our own songs, and that’s all Hill Country Blues. Which, to me, just sounds more modern. It’s more primitive,” he’s quick to add, “but it’s more modern.”
“And of course, Cody was adding a lot of modern production tricks to it.”
Cody is the energetic and focused younger sibling who’s constantly pushing himself to be better at his craft. “I think when we’re looking back and looking forward at the same time is when the Allstars are at their best. it’s really where our strength is. I definitely set out to focus on our strength on this record. There’s definitely more modern elements. but it’s more of what I’m starting to call ‘boogie blues’. It’s almost like when we’re really performing at our best, the crowd is very engaged and dancing and moving. It’s not so much an ‘existential’ experience. It’s not like they’re sitting back in awe of the North Mississippi Allstars. they’re part of it. They’re in there with us. And that was important to me. That we engage…” In under two hours, he’d be putting his money where his mouth was by handing drumsticks to a ecstatic college-age girl to help beat on a drum while he waltzed through the crowd mid-show.
“I wanted to make music that was primal and primitive,” Cody says about the production on World Boogie. “Heavy on drums, heavy on vocals. Something that would get people engaged. I suppose some modern production techniques were required to make that happen. Technically, we make a conscious decision to do it; it’s not an analog recording, it’s digital. And I wanted to do it in high def not just for audio but for video as well.”
Sons to acclaimed music producer and artist Jim Dickinson, Cody and Luther grew up in the upper eastern part of Mississippi, known as the “Hill Country” for obvious reasons. It was in this rural territory that the brothers learned from their fathers’ experience and vast record collection, and met the blues legends that would guide their musical lives.
“It was amazing, man,” says Luther with a spark in his eye and excitement in his voice. “We made friends with Othar first in the 80s, because we were playing with our dad and we played this festival in Memphis every year, and he played with his family. Over the years we became friends with Othar’s family. Then Kenny Brown was an old family friend and he would come see us play when we were teenagers. But once we got turned on to R.L. and Cedric and Duwayne and Gary, we’d start to go down to Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint and it was an amazing experience and we knew it was. But it’s just gone now. There’s nowhere to go to see that.
“Othar was 94 when he died. R.L. took me on the road in 97, then Kenny Brown hired me and we’ve been on tour ever since.”
The boys laugh back and forth, reliving past times with the blues masters as Cody describes juke joint experiences in their early years. “Junior [Kimbrough], man, he was just heavy. That was the place that we would go hang out, and just the fact that he welcomed us…”
“But we didn’t bother him,” Luther decisively points out.
“We didn’t bother him!” Cody adds as the brothers laugh with a sort of playful nervousness that hints to the towering figure Kimbrough must have been. “It was like that. You don’t wanna, ‘hey, dude what’s up man!’ I mean, that’s what I wanted to do. But I didn’t. But I could do that with his kids. I bugged the hell out of his kids! We became good friends. Their kids were accessible to me, and it was kind of like the next generation and that was sort of the ‘doorway’ to me. I became friends with Gary [Burnside] first. Then through Gary, I met Duwayne and we became great friends, and I really ran with the Burnsides for a long time.”
It was those friendships, playing at the feet of the great bluesmen of the twentieth century with their children and grandchildren, that would help culminate into a successful, internationally touring band — and those relationships would come full circle to create something magical on World Boogie.
Luther brushes back his long hair and explains exactly why the boys departed from the direction of their last several albums and got back to the basics. “I thought the time was do-or-die for the Hill Country. We had to unite the troops and make a declaration of what was going on in this day and age.”
In this case, uniting the troops wasn’t a figure of speech. The cast of assembled characters — many of whom the boys played with at the feet of giants, essentially guaranteed both the most powerful and most authentic statement of today’s Hill Country and Mississippi music. It includes Shardé Thomas, granddaughter of Othar Turner who tirelessly carries on the Fife and Drom tradition, Mississippi torch-bearers Lightnin’ Malcom and Alvin Youngblood Hart, Duwayne and Garry Burnside, the grandsons of the late legend R.L. Burnside, 60 year old Hill Country beacon Kenny Brown, who R.L. Burnside lovingly referred to as his adopted son, and former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant.
The result has been called “career-defining”, though that term may be too narrow to accurately describe the genre affirmation that came from the recording. With World Boogie, The Allstars earned their place at the table beside R.L. Burnside’s 1996 towering punk rock & hill country blues dance-album achievement, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey.
“I think it’s a good statement for modern-day Mississippi,” Dickenson adds with an understated offhandedness that hides the fact that it may have been coming when Bukka White was singing about it, but around the North Mississippi Allstars, World Boogie has arrived.