Exactly 10 years ago, the North Mississippi Allstars — brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, with gospel-schooled bassist Chris Chew — rose out of the Mississippi hill country with an engaging debut album, "Shake Hands With Shorty", that put a young, rock-schooled take on area blues icons such as Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough.
This week, the trio releases Keys to the Kingdom, their sixth studio album and first since 2008's Hernando.
An awful lot has happened to the brothers Dickinson in the nearly three years since their band last released a collection of new material. Cody took a role in Craig Brewer's $5 Cover and formed, with Chew, Hill Country Revue, releasing two albums. Luther signed on with the Black Crowes, recording and touring arenas and theaters across the country. In his down time, he hooked up with local pals Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jimbo Mathus to form the South Memphis String Band, touring and releasing the fine debut Home Sweet Home.
And then there was the event that touched them both. If the brothers' band launched itself on the influence of McDowell, Burnside, and Kimbrough, the biggest influence in their music has always been their father, longtime musician, producer, and non-parallel storyteller Jim Dickinson, who passed away on August 15, 2009.
Mere days after the elder Dickinson died, his sons convened friends and inheritors for a recording session/wake that produced the lovely Onward and Upward, released in late 2009 under the name Luther Dickinson & the Sons of Mudboy.
But it was early in 2010 that the brothers and Chew regrouped at Zebra Ranch, the family studio in Coldwater, Mississippi, for an album described in the liner notes as "Produced for Jim Dickinson."
On Keys to the Kingdom, the younger Dickinsons honor their father by making, for perhaps the first time, music as loose and free and unselfconsciously spirited as he was. Appropriately, Keys to the Kingdom is a jaunty, defiant album about mortality and loss.
The album arrives at a resurgent if bittersweet time for the Dickinsons. A couple of weeks from now, Onward and Upward will be represented at the Grammy Awards, a nominee for Best Traditional Folk Album. Later, on May 5th, Home Sweet Home will be up for best Acoustic Blues Album in the Memphis-based Blues Music Awards.
Both of those projects bleed into Keys to the Kingdom. The lead track from Onward and Upward, "Let It Roll," gets a shorter, electrified re-reading, and the communal vibe of that project is duplicated with more Dickinson friends joining in, among them Mavis Staples, Ry Cooder, Spooner Oldham, and Luther's South Memphis String Band partner Hart, who provides vocals and harmonica on the string-band-style "Ol' Cannonball."
The album opens with a dusty, revolving guitar riff on the Stonesy "This A'Way," then gives way to the nimble, ragged, almost punkish "Jumpercable Blues," Luther howling, "Hey! Hey! Well, well, well, all y'all can go straight to hell." Luther will never be a great singer. Neither was his dad. But here he just barrels right over the problem, singing, shouting, and delivering spoken-word asides with insolent assurance.
With the lone cover a one-chord hill-country blues take on Bob Dylan's "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again," the arrangement suggested by the elder Dickinson during a hospital visit, the album is packed with original songs that take on death and deliverance directly, in a blues context.
On "The Meeting," a slinky gutbucket blues number, Luther and Mavis Staples weave around each other with gospel-rooted vocals about "going to the meeting on the other side." The Ry Cooder-featured "Ain't No Grave" finds the band hoping "to be as brave as he was on that day," while "New Orleans Walkin' Dead" playfully literalizes resurrection.
Keys to the Kingdom concludes with "Jellyrollin' All Over Heaven," where the band imagines their father, producer, and musical/spiritual guide on the other side, livening up the next world: "I love to see those sisters shaking that heavenly thing ... Angels they all gather round when they hear that earthly sound."
It's easy to imagine the old man approving. — Chris Herrington
Keys to the Kingdom is being released Tuesday, February 1st.