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Members include Chris Chew, bass, backup vocals; Cody Dickinson, percussion, guitars, backup vocals; Luther Dickinson, lead vocals, guitar, mandolin. Addresses: Record company--Tone-Cool Records, P.O. Box 81034, Wellesley, MA 02481-0001, website: http://www.tonecool.com. Management--Mike's Artist Management, Ltd., 336 E. Fort Lowell Rd. # 202, Tucson, AZ 85705.
The North Mississippi Allstars have put a fresh face on blues-based rock for those too young to remember the works of Johnny Winter, Cream, Canned Heat, and the Allman Brothers. Their mix of fuzz-tone rock pyrotechnics--reminiscent of ZZ Top--with jazzy bass, Southern gospel, and juke-joint blues, has enabled the band to expand their mid-South cult following into an international fan-base.
The most dynamic aspect of their sound is the eclectic guitar work of Luther Dickinson, who often incorporates Duane Allman-style country-rock licks with punkish vamps and percussive, bluesy improvisation into his solos. Younger brother Cody Dickinson drums with hard rock force and flair but is highly adaptable to the group's many shifts in mood and tempo. Holding it all together are the jazz-tinged bass lines of Chris Chew, whose backup vocals provide a soulful counterpoint to Luther's hissing hard-rock phrases. Although the roots-minded trio draws heavily from such old-time blues artists as Mississippi Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough, the Allstars bristle when others label them a blues act. "We don't claim to be a blues band at all," Luther Dickinson told Edward Angel Sotelo of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "We're a rock 'n' roll band."
When speaking with Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, the lead guitarist went into greater detail, referring to their approach as "primitive modernism." "I do love that phrase. That sums up the whole hill country experience. We have a funny sound, where everything clashes together; the hill country scene we grew up around, all the roots music we were exposed to through our dad and his friends, all the MTV generation stuff we grew up on, whether it was Black Flag or Van Halen, and all the traditional psychedelic rock 'n' roll we got into as drug-taking teenagers. We bring in Chris Crew, who grew up singing in church, and he brings us this uplifting gospel feel."
Born in Fayette County, Tennessee, the Dickinsons are sons of renowned session musician and producer Jim Dickinson, who played keyboards for such legends as Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Bob Dylan, the Flamin' Groovies, and the Replacements, as well as intense contemporary acts like G. Love & Special Sauce, Flat Duo Jets, Mudhoney, and Jason & The Scorchers. Though Dickinson's influence on his sons' musical development shouldn't be understated, he told Natalie Nichols of the Los Angeles Times that he allowed them to find their own way musically. "Luther came to me with his guitar at one point, trying to get me to teach him. And I said, 'No. If I teach you then you'll play like me.'"
Still, Luther and Cody picked up much of their dad's influence through sheer osmosis. At the respective ages of five and three, the boys sang their first song together, "Casey Jones," which they learned from a record their father produced for Memphis blues great Furry Lewis. Years later, Dickinson recalled to Nichols, "In the 80s I was working with Ry Cooder a lot, doing movie scores. I would play [Luther and Cody] the tapes but it really didn't cross my mind that they were absorbing it at that level." This process would also influence Luther's career as a songwriter. Talking with Wayne Bledsoe of the Knoxville News-Sentinel, he clearly recalled the demos that Paul Westerberg of the Replacements sent to his dad before recording the band's Pleased To Meet Me album, commenting, "I learned a lot about songwriting from those."
The Dickinsons moved from Tennessee to north Mississippi in 1986, though they were frequent participants in the Memphis music scene. As young boys they called themselves the Rebel Aires, and played Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins tunes before going on to form the preteen ensemble Pigs in Space. By age 17, Cody was playing drums behind fusion guitarist Shawn Lane, though bigger things were on the horizon.
During the early 1990s, the Dickinson Brothers had formed D.D.T., a self-described "postpunk thrash rock fusion" band that played proudly and punishingly loud. "We were three young, talented dudes who needed an outlet," Luther told Courtney Ceronsky of the Ann Arbor News. "But it wasn't serious." However, when the brothers began to experiment with ways to combine their love of blues with punk-edged rock 'n' roll, they began to get serious about being musicians. Eventually, Luther's friendship with elderly fife-and-drum bluesman Otha Turner, for whom he produced an album and EP helped bring the idea for the North Mississippi Allstars somewhat into focus, but it was the recruitment of high school friend Chris Chew that brought the concept to full fruition.
Chew, took the place of former D.D.T. member Paul Taylor, who also played bass on the Allstars' first self-produced cassettes. A devout Baptist, Chew insists that the band limit tours so he can attend church. The benefits of such an arrangement far outweigh the negatives as the burly bassist affords the band a far wider range of stylistic expression and substantial musical credibility. "It's Chew that makes the rhythms come together, with that walking gospel bass," claims Jim Dickinson in the group's record company biography. "Plus he gets it--he understands that just by walking on the stage they make a statement. The physicality, the interracial picture, even the way they point their instruments towards Cody."
The Allstars' career picked up momentum when they signed with the Tone-Cool label, a division or Artemis Records, in 2000. Their debut CD, Shake Hands with Shorty, was a heady tribute to Mississippi bluesmen Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough, and R.L. Burnside. The blend of old-timey songs with Southern and garage rock accents set critics and fellow performers abuzz, and earned the band their first Grammy Award nomination and a W.C. Handy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2001. The disc's success opened up tours and festival appearances with the likes of Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit. The experience helped bring the band back into rock 'n' roll. "We eventually got hard-core into blues and stopped listening to contemporary music," Cody Dickinson told Alan Paul of Guitar World. "But the tour for Shorty gave us a chance to rediscover it. It's been great, because our goal all along has been to modernize the Mississippi hill music, not fossilize it."
Subsequently, their 2001 follow up, 51 Phantom, was a mix of hard-driving rock and 1960s-style hippie rock with heavy gospel accents. Behind the glass, producing, was none other than Jim Dickinson. "He came in with a lot of ideas," said son Luther to the Plain Dealer's Sotelo. "What he basically did was enable us to get very live sounding cuts. He kept it feeling very real for us, as a band."
Of the disc's eleven songs, none are credited to the North Mississippi Allstars, but their deeper origins are in old-time blues. "A lot of the lyrics come from conversations I've had," recalled Luther to Kot of the Tribune. "'Snakes in the Bushes' comes from talking with Otha Turner. It's one thing to study records and see that Bukka White got a lyric from Sleepy John Estes and then Fred McDowell turned it around and did something else with it. When you're hanging around these guys, like Otha and R.L. Burnside [whose son Dwayne occasionally plays guitar onstage with the Allstars], just the way they speak is poetry."
The critical and commercial success of 51 Phantom pushed the Allstars into a larger orbit, touring with such major artists as the Dave Matthews Band, the Black Crowes, and Bob Dylan. That said, the band has continued to absorb fresh influences even when the Dickinson brothers didn't agree on the input. "Within our band, you know, there's an appreciation for a lot of stuff," Luther told Ted Drozowski of the Boston Phoenix. "In fact, my brother Cody's been listening to a very healthy dose of Slipknot lately, even though I can't take that hard-line stuff."
However, the Dickinsons' musical tastes have come together on side projects such as NMAS's acoustic jugband alter ego Gutbucket, which features Luther on guitar and mandolin, Cody on washboard, and Paul Taylor on washtub bass. The Dickinsons and Chew have also have teamed with jazz pianist John Medeski and steel guitarist Robert Randolph to make up the instrumental "gospel supergroup" Word, and have toured with Widespread Panic keyboardist John "Jo Jo" Hermann as the Smiling Assassins. In addition, the Allstars have collaborated with former Squirrel Nut Zipper James Mathus on his major-label debut. These stylistically divergent outings allow the band's members to keep their musical chops fresh in between official North Mississippi Allstar recordings and gigs. As a result, when it's time to play their patented mix of trance-like blues and Southern boogie for a live audience, the band is in prime condition. "The North Mississippi Allstars are all about the live experience," said Cody Dickinson to Curtis Ross of the Tampa Tribune. "It doesn't matter if you've heard the record or not."
by Ken Burke
North Mississippi Allstars's Career
Group first formed as a side project of the punk band D.D.T. in Memphis, TN, c. 1996; released debut single "My Babe" b/w ".44 Blues" for Caroline Records, quickly followed by independently produced cassettes 61 Highway and White Boys in the Basement, 1997; released independent five-song cassette Brand New, 1998; signed with Tone-Cool, released self-produced Shake Hands with Shorty, 2001; released 51 Phantom, 2001.
North Mississippi Allstars's Awards
(Cody Dickinson) National Academy for Recording Arts and Sciences Memphis Premier Players Awards, Premier Drummer, 1998; (North Mississippi Allstars) National Academy for Recording Arts and Sciences Memphis Premier Players Awards, Special Achievement Award, 2000; National Academy for Recording Arts and Sciences Memphis Premier Players Awards, Best Band and Outstanding Achievement 2001; W.C. Handy Awards, Best Contemporary Blues Recording, 2001.
- Ann Arbor News, March 6, 2002.
- Billboard, February 2, 2002.
- Charlotte Observer, November 30, 2001.
- Chicago Tribune, November 2, 2001.
- Denver Post, February 7, 2002.
- Drum!, December 2001/January 2002.
- Free Press, March 14, 2002.
- Guitar World, December 2001.
- Jersey Journal, March 22, 2002.
- Knoxville News-Sentinel, November 25, 2001.
- Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2001.
- Metro Weekly, March 7, 2002.
- New Musical Express, November 3, 2001.
- Plain Dealer, November 12, 2001.
- Pop Matters, March 22, 2002.
- Providence Journal, March 14, 2002.
- Tampa Tribune, April 5, 2002; April 9, 2002
- Time, July 10, 2000.
- Vail Daily, February 2, 2002.
- "Jim Dickinson," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 12, 2002).
- "North Mississippi Allstars," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (July 11, 2002).
- North Mississippi Allstars Official Website, http://www.nmallstars.com (July 11, 2002).
- Additional information was provided by Tone-Cool publicity materials, 2002.
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