North Mississippi Allstars: An Interview

By Janet Wolfe

The North Mississippi Allstars brought some new twists and turns to Southern blues and rock to Headliners on October 28th. Just starting out this leg of the tour to promote their newest CD, Polaris, the band was on fire. The foursome is Luther and Cody Dickinson, sons of Memphis premier producer at Ardent Studios, with Chris Crew, on bass and of one of the gifted sons of R.L. Burnside, Duwayne Burnside, on guitar and often doubling on drums. The band formed in 1996 and the picture became clearer when Duwayne joined the band in 2001, freeing up Cody from the drums to explore other musical voices, including singing and guitar.

Los Straitjackets opened up with a hot set of surfer music. It must get hot under those masks. Chief Eddie Clearwater sings some nice blues out of Chicago, but the blues were real hot when the North Mississippi Allstars took the stage. I was waiting all day to meet one of the offspring of R.L. Burnside and the respected band from Memphis. Duwayne definitely has his daddy's genes.

The band has great chemistry and energy. I was entranced by their new tunes and their old music from Shake Hands With Shorty and 51 Phantom, both Grammy-nominated. I've heard some good washboard playing in my day, but Cody Dickinson plays truly ungodly and breathtaking. psychedelic washboard with a pedal attached. It was clear that most of the crowd had been into this band for years: they knew every single word of the old stuff.

The Interview

During the sound-check, after a busy afternoon playing at ear-x-tacy Records and chatting on WFPK, Luther was kind to grant me a few questions. On to the good notes......

LMN: "What part of North Mississippi are you from? Where did you go to high school?"

LD: "Well, me and Cody and Chris went to school for years in Hernando and that's in Desoto County, south of Memphis."

LMN: "Were you in the high school band?"

LD: "Cody was in middle school band playing drums. Reading and writing music and such."

LMN: "I figured that since he did all the horn arrangements and orchestrations. Who lives at the Zebra Ranch? And where exactly is Coldwater?"

LD: "My family moved to Tate County which is further south. That's where Ottho Turner lived. That's where the Zebra Ranch is. We live way out in the country. But it's kinda close to Coldwater."

LMN: "You crossed the state lines to go back to your roots at Ardent, the heritage of Beale St., 16-track analog, using Alex Chilton's amp - was that to capture some of that pure spiritual blues energy of Memphis history? It's quite a different approach in these times. Musicians are hard to satisfy? Is your Daddy proud of this new effort?"

LD: (Laughed). "Definitely. Jim helped me a lot in making this record on my songs. You couldn't have said it any better. We always wanted to go back to Ardent. It's the first time we could afford to and make it work. The essence really formed in the second or third year when playing on Beale St., where we really found our own style, mixing the blues and the psychedelic sort of rock and the gospel. It was playing on Beale St. this one year. I grew up with Alex and being a fan of Big Star. I really listened to a lot of Big Star and Replacements this last year and the records my Dad did. I wanted to go back and participate in that tradition. We grew up around it but I really actually wanted to be a part of it and use the old Mellotron."

LMN: "Are people asking 16-track analog? What are you all doing? Are they kind of thinking you're nuts?"

LD: "You're the first person to get hip to it. I got that from John Modeski. They do that at MMW Studio they use 16 tracks. We recorded on 16-track and then we went to computer. It is inevitable to go to computer afterward, at least this time, but to get that 16-track sound is very satisfying to me."

LMN: "Polaris peaked at #14 on the new artist charts, yet your first two releases were both Grammy-nominated? Do you see some irony to all that?"

LD: "Well, I don't know, I see it as really funny. I see the same thing happening to Robert Randolph, We're so proud to be - you know - they always put us in the blues category and I think it's great. It really gives us an edge because we couldn't even put a dent in the rock category. His new record is pretty rockin' and he's typically in the gospel category. So it's kinda cool that they look to your roots for your category, even if you branch out. This is more of a rock record in a way. It's not as bluesy as our others."

LMN: "How high is "Eyes" on the singles charts?"

LD: "Oh I don't know. It did pretty good when they added it to the radio. It was the third added song of that week of that time period. I don't know what the record sales are like. If they don't tell me, I don't ask. I know that we see people singing along wherever we go. I think it's catching on pretty good. It's a good song because it's a big collaboration; even the melody from the bridge comes from the Burnside family. The new songs on Polaris are really co-dependent on the four of us in the group. Like the other records I could go play them by myself. But on this record you really need as many of us that can be - like we're doing acoustic or whatever, all the parts are real important. I think that's cool. It's kinda like this it how it is- the band- you know what I mean? It's not just people playing a song. Like these people have to be there to play the song, you know what I mean?"

LMN: " Yeah. Can you name your three favorite cuts off of Polaris?"

LD: "I like "Meet Me In the City." We always knew back in 1999, we would do this on our third record. "Time for the Sun to Rise." It has my good friend Shawn Lane. You can really hear him on the intro. He did it live on one guitar pass. It sounds like two guitars going backwards and forwards at the same time. And you listen to the in-between time between "Sun To Rise" and "Be So Glad," there's a little piece of music and that's Shawn live off the floor, first take, but it's a beautiful amazing, modern sounding. I like that one a lot. We're actually going to do a re-mix of that song, where all four of us sing a verse each and probably simplify the music and bring up and try to make Shawn stand out. And I like "Conan" because that's collaboration. Cody wrote that instrumental section when he was a little bitty kid and I had the song and put the solo section in there. I think it's real pretty. I wanted to have a moment - just a breath of fresh psychedelic air."

LMN: "A few years back you played at Harry's House of Brews - a small place with great music- today you checked out ear x-tacy, our outstanding NPR station, WFPK and Headliners - I see the scene here getting as cool as Memphis was back in the day. What do you think about Louisville today?"

LD: "Oh, man, I've always been a huge fan of Kentucky. I think it's a great, great city. I like Lexington a lot, too and Louisville. I've had some really fat shows at Headliner's here in the past. I know one night we've opened up for Galactic, (evil laugh), it was a lot of fun. My Morning Jacket, they are heading the charge. They've got so much press and their record is great. We've got a bootleg we've been listening to and they sound really good live. So I'm really good fans of those guys. I can tell by the posters at the record store that they are hip. Like I saw Lucero is from Memphis; they're coming up here for Halloween. It's good to see local support for the hometown Memphis boys."

LMN: "Yeah, they're playing at my favorite hangout. Do you guys like ponies? Do you have to travel very far tomorrow? Wanna go to the track for a couple of hours?"

LD: (laughs)"I'm not really sure where's we're going. I think we're going to Ann Arbor, Mi, tomorrow, so we're going to leave tonight. My Mom loves horses, so we grew up with horses through her. She watches all the races on TV."

I grinned, gave them all a mojo bean for luck and hopped into my old Honda, happy to have heard a special evening of some fresh blues.

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