Every now and then‚ a band flies under the radar and doesn't get the attention they deserve. The North Mississippi Allstars are no longer one of them. Following their third Grammy nomination for last year's Electric Blue Watermelon‚ their new record‚ Hernando‚ is set to make people wake up and notice their unique blend of Mississippi hill country music and straight-up rock 'n' roll. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with guitarist Luther Dickinson about the past‚ present and future.
Jonathan Ray: How did it feel to record this album after your last record [Electric Blue Watermelon] was nominated for a Grammy in the best contemporary blues category? How do you feel about the Grammys in general? Is that something that you think is cool?
Luther Dickinson: Yeah‚ it's cool! Especially for a band like us. It's nice to have that kind of nod from your peers and the industry. It's really cool‚ and it's the type of thing that helps with your legitimacy‚ if you know what I mean‚ in a funny way. And in another way‚ it's just a laugh. It's fun‚ a good party to go to. Especially after our debut record‚ that nomination was a real surprise. But the third nomination‚ for Electric Blue Watermelon‚ was really cool because we've been experimenting and doing different things. Then we kind of came back home‚ and they popped that one on us. And we were like‚ all right‚ we're still in the game! My friend Charlie Musselwhite has been nominated eight times‚ so it's not about winning. But it is the least of our considerations when trying to put together a record.
JR: So do the Grammy nominations put more pressure on you‚ or actually make you feel more secure and relaxed when writing and recording?
LD: Yeah‚ it definitely does something‚ maybe not give you more confidence. It makes you feel you have a place. It's interesting because we have a funny niche‚ you know? We're a rock 'n' roll band with a heavy blues influence. We've been fortunate enough to fit into that contemporary blues category. And that's a real cool thing. And with this record I wanted to make‚ just a straight-ahead kind of blues rock record. Kind of a classic rock record from the '60s or '70s.
JR: How much songwriting responsibility did you personally have on this project?
LD: I ended up putting it all together and organizing it all. But so much of the music is collaborative. From just touring and hanging out together‚ we'll come up with different riffs and save them on our phones or whatever. I'll go home‚ put them together‚ then add the lyrics. Some of the lyrics come from conversations‚ or a saying from Chris [Chew‚ bassist]‚ or even from someone back home. So then I sort it all out and bring it back to the band. Then we kind of put the finishing touches on it together. This record was the best because for the first time we had more than enough songs.
We demoed up about 22 songs and then picked from there what 12 we were going to focus on. So that was really cool‚ and it made the process a lot easier because we were all familiar with the songs. In the past‚ we'd go into the studio with a brand new song we've never played before. And you can make that work‚ but it's cooler when maybe you've played it live. Or maybe you haven't‚ but at least you've done a demo and everyone is hip to the tune. So you can do the demo‚ then work on the arrangement some more and edit it together‚ definitely catering to my ADD with the arrangement and trying to keep it moving‚ while cutting out as much fat as possible.
JR: Am I correct that your father [Jim Dickinson] had a hand in selecting the tracks for this record?
LD: He did‚ and that was really cool because last year I told him that I wanted to make a straight-ahead blues rock record. Just rock 'n' roll. But then we kept writing and writing and doing some covers‚ too. We ended up writing some love songs and some pop songs‚ just all different types of tunes. And songwriting is seductive; you write a tune and then you fall in love with it and think you have to make a home for it. But then we handed the demos to our father‚ and he picked all the rockers. At first I was like‚ damn‚ but then I saw an interview where I said I wanted to make just a straight-ahead rock record that's real solidified. So he was just keeping me on track. So that was really cool. And I've seen him do it with other artists. With the John Hiatt record he produced‚ he picked the tunes. It's part of what a producer can do for you.
JR: So as a band‚ all of you were confident and comfortable with leaving this in his hands. You basically said here's what we've got. Tell us what to do.
LD: Exactly. It was cool.
JR: So if you had chosen the tracks‚ would it be a completely different record?
LD: I hate to even think of that‚ because I'm real happy with the way it turned out. And another cool thing that helped keep it together‚ just to make a rock 'n' roll record‚ was our acoustic record [Mississippi Folk Music Vol. 1] we made last September. We only sell it at the merchandise table and online. It's kind of under the radar. It's a beautiful record I'm very proud of. It's mostly traditionals with a couple of originals‚ some very pretty acoustic stuff. I love pretty songs and happy music. So doing the acoustic record allowed me to get that out of my system‚ to just open it up. There's not an acoustic guitar on Hernando.
JR: You recorded the last couple records in Memphis. You decided to bring it home to your father's Zebra Ranch Studio in Coldwater‚ Miss. I felt you could sense a level of comfort on this record because of that. It doesn't feel forced; it has a very natural organic feel to it.
LD: That's exactly right‚ man! We've been working on that studio for a long time. Maybe 12 or 13 years. Before the Allstars even. Nurturing the vibe‚ the sounds and aesthetic for so long‚ and it keeps getting better and better. I think in this day and age it's more important to have a sonic atmosphere with character than it is to have a pristine‚ modern sounding recording. So that's what we were going for. There's something about the home quality that comes through on the recordings.
We used to have a basement in Hernando‚ and dad got this royalty check off of The Replacements record [Pleased To Meet Me]. We soundproofed the basement‚ and we spent lots of years in there. We'd be in there all night‚ just raging for days. It was insane. So we've always loved playing at home.
JR: I remember you and Cody [Dickinson‚ drummer] telling a story on the Sonic Stage at Bonnaroo one time. You were talking about how if it wasn't for your father allowing you to sit in that basement‚ smoke grass and play all day and night‚ you wouldn't be where you are today.
LD: That's so true‚ man. I say that all the time. I was telling my wife about it just the other day. We didn't go to college. We were making some money playing around a little bit‚ but we didn't have too much going on. I graduated high school in 1991. So after that‚ the next six years in that basement were invaluable. Then I went on the road with R.L. Burnside in 1997. He and Kenny Brown taught me how to tour. Then Cody and I started touring in 1998. Between 2000-2006‚ we toured nonstop.
So that period of time was amazing‚ and I'll always owe my father for that. Because‚ you know‚ if I had to go out and get a job‚ I definitely wouldn't have had time to learn my craft.
JR: That's something that inhibits a lot of musicians from achieving their musical goals and dreams. You were very fortunate.