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New Sounds as Old as the Hills

The North Mississippi Allstars learned the blues from legends. Then they added modern touches.

April 29, 2001|NATALIE NICHOLS | Natalie Nichols is a regular contributor to Calendar

In the lobby of a grand Hollywood hotel, all the out-of-towners gawk as extras for a period film gather amid racks of costumes. But North Mississippi Allstars guitarist Luther Dickinson is far more excited by the sight of an ordinary brown shipping box that bassist Chris Chew has just retrieved from the desk clerk.

"Free strings!" exults the easygoing, deep-voiced musician as he grabs a handful of small, black-and-red boxes out of the package. "Man, how many years have we paid for these things?"

More years than you might think. Luther, 28, and his drummer brother, Cody, 24, first got guitars when they were barely grade-schoolers growing up in rural north Mississippi. The sons of legendary rock keyboardist and producer Jim Dickinson, they've been playing together in various bands for almost as long, trying out everything from punk to roots rock to what their father wryly terms "a kind of unfortunate fusion."

In 1996, after forming the Allstars with their childhood pal Chew, 27, the Dickinson brothers finally settled on their distinctive style, a modernized yet authentic take on the ancient hill-country blues kept alive by their legendary neighbors R.L. Burnside, Othar Turner, and the late David "Junior" Kimbrough.

Burnside and Kimbrough came to larger fame in the '90s, when they were "discovered" by the Fat Possum record label, and Luther's mentor, Turner, 92, plays perhaps the purest form of this regional style, a distinctly haunting fife-and-drum music that dates to the Civil War and sounds as if it's being channeled straight from the Earth's core.

The band quickly built a grass-roots reputation on the strength of its live shows. The trio rocked-up a bunch of classic hill-country tunes for its 2000 debut album, "Shake Hands With Shorty," even recruiting Turner himself, along with Burnside's sons Garry and Cedric, to play on it. The collection garnered positive reviews, mainstream attention and a contemporary blues Grammy nomination.

Indeed, the Allstars have taken hill-country music about as far from Kimbrough's fabled backwoods juke joint as it could go.

"We've got blues, rock 'n 'roll, gospel, punk, hip-hop--it's really the Slim Shady generation," says Luther, basking in the sun by the hotel pool with his bandmates.

Indeed, some believe the Allstars could become the 21st century's answer to the Allman Brothers Band, turning a whole new generation on to the joys of Southern rock.

"I dunno about that," says Luther. "We just want to take it to the people and keep it real."

Keeping it real has gotten the Allstars pretty far. But everyone involved knows the true test of whether the band can go to the next level will come with its forthcoming album, featuring almost all original tunes.

'The talent is definitely there," says Dave Bartlett, co-owner of Massachusetts-based, roots rock-oriented indie Tone-Cool Records, the Allstars' label. "I've always thought of 'Shake Hands With Shorty' as comparable to the Allmans' first record, since it's just a wildly different take on the blues while still drawing on the roots and feeling of the music."

Bartlett acknowledges that broad commercial success today is often tied to radio airplay, but he believes the Allstars can achieve wider fame through the same combination of touring and word-of-mouth that has served them so well. "[Radio airplay] would help us reach that Allman Brothers-type level sooner," he says, "but we'll get there soon enough."

Although the players understand that the modern touches make their music appealing to a younger audience, their strengths are rooted in tradition. Even the enormous, affable but no-nonsense Chew, whose duties also include shooing Cody's numerous female fans off the tour bus, draws his unique walking bass style and vocal harmonies from his family's gospel legacy.

The Dickinson brothers grew up with their dad's extensive record collection, and their tastes run the gamut from Hendrix and the Allmans to Black Flag and Rage Against the Machine. As kids, they absorbed their father's work with countless artists from Ry Cooder and legendary drummer Jim Keltner to the Replacements to his own longtime group, Mud Boy & the Neutrons, which also mixed up blues and roots rock.

Everything left an impression on the boys, but in the Dickinson household (which included their mother, Mary Lindsay), learning about music was a casual thing.

"It wasn't that age-old story of the [Beach Boys'] Wilsons or whatever. You know, the control-freak father," says Cody, a rail-thin, pensive-yet-extroverted young man who unabashedly whips off his T-shirt after a few minutes in the heat. "It was not like that at all."

The brothers always had guitars, drums and recording equipment within reach, Luther explains, but, "Dad told us, 'Rock 'n' roll is self-taught.' "

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