A Brother Duo Digs Deep For The Blues

Sep 1, 2013
Originally published on September 8, 2013 3:54 pm

The North Mississippi Allstars has been cranking out soulful, hard-driving Southern rock for some seven studio records now. But for brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, it's not just rock for rock's sake. They dig deep for the roots of the music they're passionate about: the blues and the down home sounds of folks like R.L. Burnside, Otha Turner, Junior Kimbrough and Fred McDowell. The group has a new album, World Boogie Is Coming, and the brothers Dickinson spoke about it with Weekend Edition Sunday guest host Wade Goodwyn. Click the audio link to hear their conversation.

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NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS: (Singing) If a soul were a (unintelligible)...


The North Mississippi Allstars have been cranking out hard-driving Southern rock and blues for some seven studio records now. But for brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, it's not just rock for rock's sake. They dig deep for the roots of the music they're passionate about. Ties to the delta blues and the down-home sounds of folks like RL Burnside, Otha Turner, Junior Kimbrough and Fred McDowell.


ALLSTARS: (Singing) My baby said, daddy, you know what I've done. Can I do the boogie-woogie before I leave home?

GOODWYN: Luther and Cody Dickinson join us from the studios of WUWM in Milwaukee. Luther, welcome.

LUTHER DICKINSON: Thank you, thank you. So proud to be here.

GOODWYN: And, Cody, welcome to you too.

CODY DICKINSON: Yeah, man. Thanks for having us.

GOODWYN: So, you know, I've been listening to the album and you're really trying to connect to a past that you were worried might be dying out.

DICKINSON: It's true. You know, we grew up in Mississippi not far from Memphis. And in the mid-'90s, the Hill Country blues scene of RL and Junior and Otha Turner, you know, Fat Possum Records, it was in its heyday and it was so exciting and inspiring. And I never thought I'd live to see modern-day country blues in my backyard, electrified and multigenerational.


ALLSTARS: (Singing) Home of boogie. But back to (unintelligible), well, if you're so good in the body...

GOODWYN: Did you learn at the feet of these musicians?

DICKINSON: Indeed. Otha Turner was like a grandfather to me. He was a self-sufficient farmer. He passed away at the age of 94, so you can imagine the wisdom he had. You know, he didn't use a tractor, he grew all his own food, he had every type of barnyard animal you can imagine. He was completely self-sufficient and had nothing but total disdain for modern life. And he was a master musician and first-generation blues man and he taught me how to feel the music. And RL Burnside and Kenny Brown hired me to go on the road for the first time in 1997. And they showed me the ropes, and we've been on the road ever since.

GOODWYN: Luther, you play guitar, and, Cody, you're on drums. Luther, you call yourself devoid of modern influences. And you say you turn to Cody to help you with that. Tell me a little bit about that.

DICKINSON: We complement each other well. I'm old-fashioned to a fault and don't trust myself to make records that aren't indulgently old-fashioned. So, I do turn it over to Cody.

DICKINSON: Which is very interesting because I'm just not nostalgic by nature. I'm just very interested in the present and the future and, you know, where things are heading, where innovation and progress meet legacy and tradition is a very exciting place to be, creatively.

GOODWYN: Well, that's a good introduction to this. This is a track off the album. It's a delta blues classic. It's called "Rolling and Tumbling."


ALLSTARS: (Singing) I go rolling in a rebel (unintelligible). I didn't know I was wrong, baby.

GOODWYN: Luther, I understand you play this song on a guitar made of a coffee can. I've never seen a two-string guitar before.

DICKINSON: Well, go to our website and watch the video. You know, it's a great example of this record. It's primitive modernism. You know, it's a diddly bow made with a coffee can, and that's the acoustic sound of it right there. But when you plug it in and crank it up, it gets pretty nasty, you know.


GOODWYN: You know, I definitely hear a powerful element at times of funk.


DICKINSON: Oh yeah. Well, we do live in Mississippi and we did have a lot of real funky musicians help us record this record.


GOODWYN: And there are links to Southern musical roots in the players on the album: RL Burnside's son Dwayne and his son Gary and Otha Turner's granddaughter. Tell us about some of the musicians that are on this album.


DICKINSON: Otha Turner, she took up the bamboo cane fife. And it's literally a piece of bamboo bored out into a fife. And it's this ancient African instrument. And she took it up at the age of eight. And I remember, you know, her progressing. But now she's just a beautiful lady and so talented. And she's in the videos with us and singing and playing the fife.

DICKINSON: She's an absolutely superstar. I don't think I've ever seen so much natural talent. She's incredible.


GOODWYN: So, when I first heard the second song, "Goat Meat," right at the beginning, I thought it sounded a little bit like Stevie Ray Vaughn.


ALLSTARS: (Singing) We poked around, we go to eat...

GOODWYN: And instead of hearing Vaughn's guitar wail, I hear a harmonica wail. And I go to look and it's Robert Plant.



ALLSTARS: (Singing) Eight-fifty each. Blow.

GOODWYN: How do you get Robert Plant to play harmonica on your album?

DICKINSON: It's the same way you move a mountain - inch by inch. You know, it was a long time coming. We had been talking about working together and it finally came together in Memphis. It was at the very end of the session and we were able to get that recorded right before we submitted the record. So, they're very fresh. And I love that. It's very exciting.


ALLSTARS: (Singing) Eight-fifty each, 8.50 each, 8.50 each, 8.50 each.

GOODWYN: Your music seems to cross race. Tell me a little bit about that.

DICKINSON: We've always been integrated band. And that's what music and art is all about. That's what modern-day culture of the world is about. You know, it's so interesting, like, I love watching, like, say, G-Love or Jack White or John Spinster or Beck, the people of my generation who grew up with their fathers' blues record collection and what they did with the art. But now to watch the next generation, when everything is accessible, you know, so let's see where music evolves in 20 years from now - that's so exciting to me.


ALLSTARS: (Singing) Meet me over in the city. In the city, everything's so fine...

GOODWYN: And does north Mississippi feel like it's starting to be a different place?

DICKINSON: Absolutely, absolutely, yeah. North Mississippi is a culturally enlightened land. It's truly a remarkable place, and I'm so fortunate to have been raised there and to grow up around an incredible, enormous amount of talent.

GOODWYN: Luther and Cody Dickinson from the North Mississippi Allstars. Their new album is called "World Boogie is Coming." Luther and Cody joined us from the studios of WUWM in Milwaukee. Thank you, gentlemen.

DICKINSON: Thank you.

DICKINSON: Thanks for having us.


ALLSTARS: (Singing) So, please, don't leave me right now, girl. 'Cause right now, right now, oh no...

GOODWYN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Rachel Martin returns next week. I'm Wade Goodwyn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.