Music » Music Stories

Shorty's Groove

Steeped in family and regional tradition, the brothers Dickinson create a variation on the hill-country blues for their North Mississippi All Stars


World boogie is coming, man. This is just the beginning."

Luther Dickinson is trying out the term, picked up by his father, legendary record producer and session man Jim Dickinson, from an old Bukka White album to describe the music that he and his brother Cody make on Shake Hands with Shorty, the debut album by the North Mississippi All Stars.

The boogie part is a given. The All Stars are a fiery blues-rock combo featuring Luther's droning guitar chords, snaky bottleneck leads and snarling vocals; Cody's in-the-groove drumming; and the bass and background vocals of Chris Chew, who brings some funk and gospel influences to the group.

As for how worldly their music is, it's actually quite the opposite. The All Stars play a rocked-up version of the sounds made by the hill-country bluesmen of northern Mississippi -- Junior Kimbrough, R.L Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Othar Turner and others. It's a lesser-known cousin of the Delta blues that begat the more popular urban style of today. But thanks to Shorty, an album picked by many critics as one of the best recordings of last year, the world is gonna hear about it.

"The main difference between Delta blues and hill-country blues is that the Delta blues went to Chicago," Dickinson says. "Delta blues is long gone, but hill-country blues is still alive and well, and it's growing and changing as the second generation comes in and takes the lead."

The Dickinsons, who grew up in Hernando, Miss., outside Memphis, are a part of that second generation, along with Gary and Cedric Burnside, sons of R.L., and David and Kenny Kimbrough, sons of Junior.

Luther describes the hill-country style this way: "If you take Fred McDowell's style of music and Othar Turner's style of music, within that is the hidden secret of the hill-country blues. Othar just uses rhythm and melody -- he's either playing a fife or singing with only drums behind him. Fred McDowell is basically rhythm and melody, too. He'd take a song like "My Baby Don't Stand No Cheatin',' and he would never change chords. He would play the whole song over just a drone, that one chord. He's beating out a rhythm with his thumb and playing a melody with his slide. In Delta and Chicago blues, there's always chord changes. You do the I, IV, V, turn around, whatever. Hill-country blues rarely changes chords. It makes it real trancey, groove-oriented. It's like Parliament's first record! [Laughs.] Or Miles Davis. That's what, to me, makes it sound more modern or more palatable to contemporary ears."

Shake Hands with Shorty, in fact, has become quite palatable to the ears and twirling bodies of jam-band aficionados. Dickinson seems bemused by the phenomenon but says he can see how it came about:

"Many of the jam bands, they come from a certain tradition -- like Galactic, they have their New Orleans tradition and their sound. Gov't Mule, they were a hard-hitting power trio. Leftover Salmon, they have a bluegrass/country thing. But we grew up rocking out. Cody and I just love Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers, stuff like that. We started out playing real traditional music, but as we began doing more and more shows, the shows got longer and longer, like three and four hours. We started improvising more within the framework of these blues songs, and that's when I think our real sound was born. It's a combination of the things we grew up with, both blues and rock."

Because they're still young -- the band members are still in their mid-20s -- they're only slowly insinuating themselves into the long tradition of the blues and not pretending to be experts on the subject. None of the songs on Shorty is an original; rather, they're covers of songs by McDowell, Burnside and Kimbrough. "We're just working our way into this style," Dickinson says. "How else are you going to work your way into a tradition other than to learn all the songs? The stuff on the record, we've been playing live for a couple of years. Our next record is going to be all originals, though. I've been trying the last couple of years to write using the hill-country traditions, and I think I'm finally getting to the point where I can do it."

The Dickinsons have been playing together since they were mere tots. Luther got his first guitar, an electric, at age 5. Cody, then 3, got an acoustic. Seven years later, Cody switched to drums and, Luther says, "We've been rocking out ever since."

Certainly family pedigree has something to do with that as well. Their father has played with Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, among many others. His production credits include Ry Cooder, Toots and the Maytals, and the Replacements, who actually allowed the then-13-year-old Luther to sit in on one of the tracks on Pleased to Meet Me.

"That was really cool," he says. "They wanted kind of a comedy heavy-metal guitar solo, so I came in and Pa and I did some two-finger tapping, and I did some whammy-bar noises. It was really fun."

The brothers formed various bands over time, including a postpunk/thrash outfit with bassist Paul Taylor called DDT (Dickinson, Dickinson, Taylor -- get it?). They also had a jug band called Gutbucket that featured the same lineup. The trio eventually morphed into the All Stars, but as they changed musical direction, Taylor became disenchanted with the group, giving way to Chew, an old friend from Hernando High School. "As soon as he joined, the band really jelled; things started escalating and have been building up since then," Dickinson says.

Dickinson says their father did not object to the brothers' going into the family business but did impart his share of wisdom: "At the very beginning, he would just kind of forewarn us. He'd say, "Man, it's a hard life. Don't do it unless you absolutely have to.' But it's all I've ever wanted to do, and he was always supportive. That was a very short period of time when he would try and talk us out of it."

Perhaps the thing that made their pursuit of music most inevitable, though, is the countryside around Hernando, where the air was full of fascinating sounds. Luther was particularly taken with Othar Turner, the aged bluesman -- now in his 90s -- whose debut album, Everybody Hollerin' Goat, Luther would produce in 1998. He also produced the follow-up, Senegal to Senatobia, a year later. Turner is significant for several reasons, including the fact that he was the one who pointed musicologist Alan Lomax in the direction of Fred McDowell, then an unknown farmer who lived down the road. Currently Turner is famous/notorious for his annual picnic, a wild bacchanal featuring music, bootleg liquor and barbecued goat.

"Othar was the first guy I got to know," he says. "He took me under his wing. As I got to know him, I started recording him. A couple years down the road, I took my guitar down there and played some Fred McDowell for him, and he just flipped out. Ever since then, he's been one of my best friends. He's like a grandfather to me. If I never get to do anything else in my life, at least we got to make a record with Othar. He deserves it."

Just so, Dickinson deserves the fame that is fast coming the All Stars' way. Perhaps the best thing about the group is that, despite their relative youth, they are a blues band with something new to say, not just another guitar hotshot and a rhythm section, à la the thousands of inferior blues bands that have come in the wake of Stevie Ray Vaughan.

"When we started the band, I was totally anti-gunslinger," Dickinson says. "I don't even claim we're a blues band. We're a rock & roll band. When young white kids play black music, that's just what happens, is rock & roll, be it Elvis, the Stones, Beastie Boys, Jimmie Rodgers, whatever. I'm fascinated by the race collision in music. It's a multiracial thing.

"Our main plan is to help other guys around here elevate their careers and get them known. They're fabulous, you know? Music brings people together down here."

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