He doesn't walk through town in a robe and crown, but around Memphis, Jim Dickinson is considered royalty. In the '60s and '70s, he was a member of the R&B royal family, playing keyboards with Atlantic Records' house band, the Dixie Flyers, and accompanying and producing artists including Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.
But nowadays he's best known as the father of half of the North Mississippi Allstars, which features sons Luther (on guitar) and Cody (on drums).
Like any good studio regent, he's passed on some of what he's learned to the next generation, but Dickinson has been pretty adamant that he refused to teach his son how to play.
Luther remembers it a bit differently. "No, he definitely taught me, but he told me that rock 'n' roll is a thing that you have to teach yourself. He showed me all the chords and helped me out and I always had a guitar when I was a little kid. And then later, we started playing together and he would show me even more, 'cause we would back him up and play for him."
It's Luther's theory that what the Allstars are doing is not too different from what his dad's last band, Mud Boy and the Neutrons, were up to. "We're coming from the tradition of the music we watched our dad play," Luther says. "Even on the first record, I think we're just a rock 'n' roll band. And we've got a big blues influence. The music's just evolved. That's the great thing--it carries on, but it keeps on changing."
The Allstars' latest, Polaris, is a definite departure from their previous work. One example is the song "Otay," which sounds more like a pop anthem more at home on an Oasis set list than what you'd expect from a Mississippi Hill country blues and rock outfit. Turns out that's not too far off. Luther and Cody got to know the Gallagher brothers when the Oasis duo came to see an Allstars show in London in 2001. Cody got close to Noel, hanging out in the studio with him while the band was recording and inspiring him to write "One to Grow On." When Gallagher heard the track, he offered to do vocals on it, and then liked the title track so much he offered to add vocals for that as well. "So we flew over there and he knocked it out in about 20 minutes," Luther remembers. Cody was inspired to write "Otay" from that experience. The guitarist says he didn't see any of the notoriously prickly Gallagher brother's fighting side. "He's a total pro and a gentlemen," says Luther.
Another departure from the band's previous sound is due to the addition of another cast member. Joining guitarist Luther, drummer Cody and bassist Chris Chew is Duwayne Burnside, son of the legendary hill country blues shouter R.L. Burnside. Duwayne grew up under the influence of R.L., Junior Kimbrough and the hill country scene, but moved to Memphis as a young man, hanging out on Beale Street and befriending guitarists Albert King and Albert Collins. "I'm just a rock 'n' roll guy," Luther says, "but Duwayne is a hard core blues dude. And his dad, R.L., was always one of my heroes. I always wanted to play with R.L., and to play with Duwayne is just amazing. That's just my own personal thrill. He's a great singer and a great guitar player." The new configuration has allowed the brothers to get even closer. Duwayne also plays drums, freeing up Cody for the first time to play guitar with his brother as well as to sing and write. Luther says the two are writing right now. "We're in a real healthy spot."
Some things about the band's sound have remained the same however. Daddy Jim once again oversaw production on this album, which was recorded at Memphis' Ardent Studios, where Dickinson worked with some big names over the years. Famous for his unusual recording techniques, Dickinson got some retro sounds by hauling out a dusty, 30-year-old Big Star amp for Luther to use. He also made use of Ardent's mellotron. "I love that sound--you can't duplicate that," Luther says. "It's an old instrument from the '60s of tape loops of string sounds. The Beatles used it a lot. It's just a classic instrument."
Dad also helped with advice. "If you're recording a song, he can tell when you got it," Luther says. "He lets you know that this is the one. You might could try it one more time, but he'd be like 'no, that's the one right there."
In the future, the Allstars are considering doing a series of EP's, one hard-core blues with Duwayne and a gospel one with bassist Chew. But for now, Dickinson says he's satisfied. "I'm real happy with where we're at. On Polaris, we were just trying to stretch out and make some room for ourselves. I figure our next record is gonna be a real solidified North Mississippi statement."
Polaris, the group's third album, is certainly their most ambitious, but asked if it's the definitive Allstars album, Luther Dickinson says that's yet to come. Album number four--the one they're writing now-- might just fill that role, he said.
"We'll know much better when we get to make it. But yeah, I think so."