We hope to tour as much as possible this year," says Luther Dickinson, prior to a gig in Denver. His band, the North Mississippi Allstars, has been out supporting its latest release, Hernando, since mid-January.
"There was a period of time, when we first started playing, that all the touring influenced us a lot," he says. "We were playing with different bands on the rock-and-roll scene night after night and at festivals — bands that we'd never even heard before, like Rage Against the Machine."
The question Dickinson was trying to address wasn't an easy one. Everything about the Allstars is bound up in a sense of place. It's in the band's name. It's in the name of their new album. There's never been an article written about them that didn't mention Dickinson's father, the storied producer/musician Jim Dickinson. Few writers have failed to bring up the band's deep and direct connection to hill-country blues artists such as Otha Turner, R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Bukka White, Furry Lewis, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. But when you begin to live not in Hernando, Mississippi, or Memphis, Tennessee, but in identical hotel rooms on the road, how does that affect an identity that is so tangled in the kudzu of the Mid-South?
"It was a big lesson to learn and keep in mind — that what's most unique and appealing about the North Mississippi Allstars is its regional [character]," Dickinson says. "And when Otha and R.L. passed, all of that came crashing down and formed a stronger idea — an idea that we have absolutely got to do what we want to do.
"Some people say the new CD doesn't sound as bluesy as our other stuff. Or that it's a departure from all the stuff we've been doing. But I don't know about that," Dickinson says. "It was all inspired by the people back home. And it's not a departure. I've never claimed that we were blues purists, even though my taste in the kind of music I listen to is pretty traditional.
"But you don't have tradition without evolution," Dickinson insists. "That's a big part of what tradition is. You know, Junior Kimbrough's father was a guitar player, and even though he was never recorded, you just know he didn't play electric guitar, and he certainly didn't play the way Junior did."
Dickinson's thoughts about tradition remind him of the question about being on the road. "There comes a time when you're so far away from home, and the music is how you get back," he says. "The music becomes your home away from home. Every time you go out on stage, it's the way you stay connected to all of that. You don't have to be there to stay connected."
Even in Hernando's forays into swamp pop and Southern rock, the connections to north Mississippi tradition are evident. "Shake (What Your Mama Gave You)," the album's opening track, thunders along on raw, raunchy, undeniably Burnside-esque guitars. And the characters who appear throughout — like Dirty Red, who gets caught with his pockets full of contraband — are all too familiar to Memphians who've had the privilege of watching Luther and his brother/bandmate Cody grow up on stage. If anything, Hernando is less a break with tradition than a wink at the brothers' previous band, DDT.
"There's a lot of the good and evil dichotomy going on," Dickinson says, describing "Soldier," a flood song he started working on a few years before Hurricane Katrina hit but didn't finish until after the disaster. "It's about people who act so high and mighty, like good Christians, but inside they're really low-down and evil."
Dickinson describes the making of Hernando as the band's most comfortable recording experience and as its most aggressive.
"It's definitely the best interpretation of what we do night after night and a pretty good attempt at capturing the chaos of our live shows," he says, admitting that it's not always easy to have your father producing your music.
"He and I disagreed about a lot of things this time," Dickinson says. "He wanted me to look at the technology being used on songs on the radio and MTV. But I said, 'No way, Jose.' I wanted the guitars to sound raw. I didn't want a lot of modern effects or studio trickery. I didn't want to use a vocal tuning box.
"I really wanted this thing to sound natural," Dickenson says, singing his dad's praises for trying to be timely. "But this day and age, I think it's important to try and capture some kind of ambience. Too much studio trickery dates a recording."