Part of Black Flag’s appeal, of course, was that Luther’s parents just didn’t get it. That’s a good enough reason for a rowdy teenage boy to connect with any band, but it’s especially significant given that Luther’s dad is Memphis maverick Jim Dickinson, who had played with the Stones and Aretha Franklin and had produced landmark albums for Big Star, the Replacements, and Ry Cooder. In 1987, Jim even recruited his 14-year-old son to play guitar on the Mats’ album Pleased to Meet Me. “He didn’t
understand Black Flag musically,” recalls Luther with a sharp laugh. “I had found my own music that alienated my rock ‘n roll parents!”
The downside, of course, was that Black Flag rarely played around North Mississippi, and when they did, they never played all-ages shows. It wasn’t until Luther was in seventh grade that he finally saw his heroes play live — at an in-store at Peaches Records in Memphis. It was an amazing experience for the adolescent. And for his dad, too. “When he saw them, he was like, ‘I get it now. It’s like Captain Beefheart and Ornette Coleman meet the Sex Pistols.’ Okay, Dad. Whatever it takes.”
That instance of father-son bonding via abrasive SoCal punk rock informs Luther’s latest album, which is actually his third solo album following recent collections of primitive folk guitar and acoustic gospel. Rock ‘n Roll Blues is not punk like Black Flag, but it does maintain a similarly hardcore DIY ethos. On opener “Vandalize,” he recounts that formative show in the third verse:
There were no all age shows in my day
For free and instrumental was how they played
In a record store, free for the kids…
I got so excited, had to vandalize
“Vandalize” serves as a prologue to an album that is, in essence, an autobiography set to music, tracing Luther’s journey from excitable teen to tour-van vet. He may have innovated blues and boogie rock, but Luther started out as a confused teenager — just like the rest of us. With its rambunctious acoustic strut and barbed chorus hook, “Bar Band” relives his dues-paying youth playing battles of the band and plastering Memphis with concert flyers, while “Blood ‘n Guts” chronicles the transience of a life spent in a van driving from one gig to the next, the steady drums marking the miles along some deserted highway.
Recorded in just a few days at Zebra Ranch, the Dickinson family home studio, these songs evoke constant struggle: to find the right chords and the right words, to balance van life with home life, to provide for his family financially as well as emotionally. Not that Luther is complaining. No woe-is-me gripe session, Rock ‘n Roll Blues sounds like a celebration of music’s regenerative effects on the human soul. As he sings on closer “Karmic Debt”:
Every night lost in the sound
Sailing my way back, homeward bound
If this ol’ world is surely round
Eventually I’ll hit solid ground
Rock ‘n Roll Blues reveals Luther to be not simply a superb guitar player, but also an acutely observant songwriter. Songs like the bittersweet reminiscence “Some Ol’ Day” and the tragicomic “Goin’ Country” portray an artist striving to honor the musical traditions of his family and his home city while struggling to find and develop his own voice. “These songs didn’t fit onto my past records,” Luther says, “but they all fit together. When I realized they told the story of a guy growing into a life in music, it really did make sense as a song cycle and as a solo record.”
Luther has been living with some of these songs for half his life. “Vandalize” was written before he could legally drink and recorded several times. “When I was a kid, that song was an atonal punk-rock track with a hip-hop break,” he admits. Other songs he recorded with a full band and electric guitars, but they all sounded either overblown or undercooked. To get them right, Luther had to unplug and pare down—way, way down. “I tried to get everything down to the barest essentials—acoustic guitar, stand-up bass, drums, vocals—and let the songs speak for themselves.”
More in line with the South Memphis String Band records or his two Grammy-nominated solo albums than with the North Mississippi Allstars, Rock ‘n Roll Blues is “folk music with juke-joint drums and lots of harmonies,” which means the rhythm section has to be both propulsive and supple, confident yet restrained. According to Luther, these songs finally came alive when he brought in bass player AmyLaVere and drummer Sharde Thomas. LaVere is a celebrated Memphis actress/singer-songwriter with
three excellent albums under her name, two of which were produced by Jim Dickinson. Her upcoming fourth album was produced by Luther.
Thomas is the granddaughter of the late great blues fife player Otha Turner (that’s his cane fife she’s playing on “Mojo, Mojo”). “Sharde and I have been playing together at Otha’s picnics for years, since she was a little girl,” Luther says. “Her groove is so earthy, and Amy can play one note and groove so hard on that,” says Luther. “They create such a lovely bed of rhythm for these songs.”
Even though he lived with some of these songs for years, there was a sense of urgency to getting them on tape and out to listeners. “I was 39 when I was making this record, and it dawned on me that there’s a difference between the records you make in your thirties and the records you make in your forties,” says Luther. “I felt like I definitely had to make this record before I turned 40.” The folksily austere sound of Rock ‘n Roll Blues is, in other words, a product of age, experience, and the relative wisdom that each brings. “The older I’ve become, the more primal I try to make everything, until I’m beating on a twostring
coffee-can diddley bow with a drumstick,” he says. “There’s freedom in limitations. I wish I’d known that when I was a kid.”
One last word about “Vandalize”: It’s Luther’s four-year-old daughter’s favorite song. “That’s why it’s first on the record, because she makes us listen to it over and over. She says, ‘It just makes me go crazy in my car seat!’ And she laughs hysterically. That’s how I knew I’d succeeded in capturing that youthful feeling of music and life making you feel crazy.”
On Blues & Ballads (A Folksinger’s Songbook) Vol. I & II, Luther Dickinson finds his way forward by retracing his steps. This ambitious double album collects twenty-one tunes from throughout his life and career—songs he wrote with his rock & roll band the North Mississippi Allstars, songs he learned from friends and family, songs passed down to him by his heroes and mentors, songs that have lived in the American subconscious for decades now—and pares them down to their irreducible elements. Voice, guitar, drums. Here and there some blues fife or Beale Street piano.
The performances on the record itself are some of his most excitable and energetic, with the bounce and rumble of early blues and rock; the arrangements transcribed in the illustrated songbook (which accompanies the vinyl edition of the album) reveal the intricate and imaginative rhythms and melodies that underpin all of Luther’s compositions. “The idea,” he says, “was to re-record everything very stripped down—very acoustic and honest and folky—to accompany the songbook.” As the subtitle suggests, this is only the beginning of what promises to be a multi-volume undertaking.
It started, as so many good things do, with Mavis Staples.
The two have been friends and occasional musical partners for twenty years: She has sung with his rock-and-roll band the North Mississippi Allstars, and he accompanied her on the soundtrack to Take Me to the River, the 2014 documentary about soul music in the South. When Mavis mentioned that she wanted to record the Allstars tune “Hear the Hills,” Luther knew he had to make it happen. On the day of the session, however, Mavis changed her mind and asked to record another song, “Ain’t No Grave,” from the Allstars’ 2011 album Keys to the Kingdom.
It’s a song that means the world to Luther. He wrote it shortly after the death of his father, the producer/singer/songwriter/all-around badass Jim Dickinson. Most people know him as a session musician who played on hits by the Stones and Dylan or as a producer who helmed seminal albums by Big Star and the Replacements. He taught Luther everything he knows: how to play guitar, how to lead a band, how to keep a songwriter’s notebook.
For Mavis, “Ain’t No Grave” is the kind of song her own father—the great Pops Staples—might have taught her and her sisters back in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the Staple Singers were the biggest name in gospel. Arranged, performed, and recorded on the fly, their version of the tune is haunting. The tempo is slow but determined, as though midway through a long, arduous journey. Sharde Thomas taps out a sympathetic rhythm on her drums while Luther lays down a wiry blues riff and sings about living up to his father’s example: “When the day comes, death comes back my way,” they sing together, “I would hope to be as brave as he was on Judgment Day.”
Mavis sings behind him, her voice trailing his, her presence a reassuring hand on Luther’s shoulder. Fatigue colors their voices, evoking the inescapable gravity of death: We are all pulled toward the grave, but it’s what we do along the way that matters. At the heart of the song is a kernel of hard-won hope, as though simply making music is consolation enough.
That memorable session sent Luther down the road toward Blues & Ballads, which he describes as a community project: “This is the most casual record I ever made. I’d record one or two songs at a time, very effortlessly and unstrategically. Then I started recording songs with different groups of friends, wherever I happened to be.” Fortunately, he happened to be in some of the best and most historic rooms in the world, including Sun Studio and Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios in Memphis. Equally fortunately, he has some incredibly talented friends: Jason Isbell, J.J. Grey, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Jimbo Mathus, Lillie Mae Rasche, and Charles Hodges, a keyboard player of the legendary Hi Records rhythm section that backed Al Green.
In addition to these cameos, Blues & Ballads emphasizes first and foremost Luther’s chemistry with his solo band, Amy LaVere on bass and Sharde Thomas on drums, fife, even accordion. Sharde in particular plays a prominent roll on these songs, not just providing a steady backbeat but singing backup and lead. It’s her voice that introduces the album on opener “Hurry Up Sunrise,” which is fitting since the song was written by her grandfather, the renowned blues fife legend Otha Turner. Their voices blend gracefully on the verses, lending the tune a spry bounce and a wide-eyed tone. Luther is so moved by the performance—recorded in one take—that he punctuates it with an excited, “I love you, girl!”
He’s been singing the song for most of his life, first learning it on Otha’s front porch. “Back in the day when I was a teenager, I would sit on his porch with our friends, all guys in the hill country blues scene, and we would all play guitar. We’d try to get Otha fired up enough that he would start singing. If he started singing, we knew were getting somewhere.” That porch was where he met Sharde, back when she was just 9 years old but already something of a fife prodigy. As a teenager, she started playing with the Allstars. “I look at him as an older brother,” she says. “When we’re onstage together, magic seems to happen. I know Otha’s smiling down on me and Luther’s father’s smiling down on him.”
Blues & Ballads has a retrospective flavor, but it’s not a greatest hits. Rather, it’s a means of translating these songs to a new moment, of letting them breathe and take new shapes. In that regard, it’s fitting that the vinyl edition includes that songbook. “I love all sorts,” says Luther, an avid collector of “hymnals, children’s songs, country music, whatever. And I’ve always wanted to have my own.” When he was growing up in rural Mississippi, these songbooks formed the bedrock of his musical education. “My grandmother was the church pianist, and I remember looking at the hymnals and trying to figure out the music. I would read the words and listen to the people singing along. Growing up pre-internet, I would go to the library and memorize every music book in the Hernando Public Library.”
Around this same time, Luther learned to keep copious notebooks full of stray thoughts, fragments of lyrics, doodles and drawings, anything that came to his mind. It’s an approach his father insisted was essential not just to the songwriter, but to anyone who creates any kind of art. Luther continues the practice today, archiving his old notebooks—all emblazoned with stickers and filled with his chicken scratch penmanship—the same way he collects songbooks.
“My whole life my dad really helped teach me how to craft songs. I’d bring in these rough songs and we’d demo them up and record them. He would always go through them and make sure the syllable count added up and the rhymes were traditional. He taught me the importance of getting the most out of every word, making every word as strong as it could be. Now that he’s gone, I still work on songs using what he taught me. We’re still working together, because he taught me how to do it. The collaboration lives on.”
Every song on Blues & Ballads was born in those songbooks and notebooks, a fact that lends the double album the feel of a memoir. This is the sound of a vital artist taking stock of his life in music and acknowledging his debt to his heroes: his grandmother, his father, Otha Turner, Mavis Staples, and so many others. “When you put all these songs together, they tell my story and my family’s story.”