He's been lauded as a sage and a shaman, but when it comes down to it, Jim Dickinson finds solace in a surprising place: Tennessee Williams' corpulent character Big Daddy.
"What does Big Daddy say?" Dickinson wonders, before succinctly delivering the line with all the relish that Burl Ives could muster: "Crap!"
"'I detect the undeniable odor of mendacity in this room,'" Dickinson recites, dreamily adding, "You know, studying theater kept me from getting drafted."
Dickinson studied theater at Baylor University in the early 1960s. "I really miss it," he says. "If I could go back, one of the things I'd like to do is play Big Daddy in a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
It's difficult to conjure the image of counterculture hero Dickinson taking a bow after portraying a dying Southern planter. Yet on two brand-new releases -- Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger (Memphis International Records) and the spoken-word album Fishing With Charlie (And Other Selected Readings) (Birdman Records) -- Dickinson returns to his theatrical roots.
The former project, recorded with sons Luther and Cody Dickinson (on guitar and drums, respectively), guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart, bassists Paul Taylor and Amy LaVere, fiddle player Tommy Burroughs, saxophonist Jim Spake, harmonica player Mark Sallings, and singers Jimmy Davis and Reba Russell at Dickinson's own Zebra Ranch Studio in Coldwater, Mississippi, is a loose-knit collection of cover songs that was cut in 11 days. By comparison, Dickinson toiled over his last album, 2002's Free Beer Tomorrow -- itself a long-awaited follow-up to his 1972 solo debut Dixie Fried -- for three-and-a-half years.
Jungle Jim is a purely Americana effort that elevates virtually unknown tunes like Collin Wade Monk's eloquent "Violin Bums" and Greg Spradlin's dirge-like "Out of Blue" to the same stature as, say, the classic blues swaggers "Hadacol Boogie" and "Rooster Blues." Standards such as "Truck Drivin' Man" and "White Silver Sands" get equal billing alongside Chuck Prophet's "Down the Road" and Bob Frank's "Red Neck, Blue Collar," which parlays Luther Dickinson's delicate banjo work into a flag-waving, beer-swilling anthem.
"I make my albums into little plays," Dickinson explains. "There are no boundaries. It's just music to me, songs I like."
He'll front the Jungle Jim musicians for a CD-release party at the New Daisy Theatre this weekend.
In recent weeks, many of the same session players have reunited at Young Avenue Sound, where Dickinson is producing a new album for New Orleans singer-songwriter Shannon McNally.
"Like my record, it's gonna be all over the place, which will drive the blues Nazis and the Americana police crazy," he chuckles, Big Daddy style.
As a producer -- he's worked with hundreds of acts, including the Replacements, Toots Hibbert, and his sons' group, the North Mississippi Allstars -- Dickinson draws on his theatrical experience, creating contrast between songs, keys, and notes.
He does that too when performing with the Yalobushwhackers, the house band for Oxford's Thacker Mountain Radio, a show broadcast over Mississippi public radio.
"Just like live theater, there's a thrill to broadcasting live that doesn't come from anything else," Dickinson notes of the program. "We're never prepared, so we're always on thin ice, and the audience is almost like church -- blue-haired ladies sitting in the same chairs week after week and kids running up and down the aisles."
The 10 spoken-word tracks that make up Fishing With Charlie might seem like a real anomaly, unless you factor in that theatrical background once more.
"I had no idea I was learning anything at Baylor," Dickinson marvels, considering his recitations of Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo" and Johnny Kellogg's speech from Ramsey Yellington's Drama of the Alamo, which harken back to his college years.
"In those days," he says, "when I was depressed, I used to play William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech back-to-back with Fred McDowell's 'Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.'"
On Fishing With Charlie, a section of Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body gets a workout, as does an excerpt from Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter, a fictional biography of jazzman Buddy Bolden.
Words penned by desolate literary angels Jack Kerouac and Larry Brown resonate in Dickinson's gravelly voice, along with Langston Hughes' "Weary Blues" and a broken fragment snatched from Stanley Booth's Rythm Oil essays.
Near the end of the album, Dickinson lurches into a familiar piece of Tennessee Williams' shattered prose.
The speech Dickinson performs is not a slice of wisdom from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, dispensed in Big Daddy's basso voice. Instead, he's chosen Tom Wingfield's lonely meditations from The Glass Menagerie, delivered just before the curtain closes at the end of the play.
"'The cities swept about me like dead leaves,'" Dickinson recites. "'I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise.'
"'Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass.'"
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