[31 July 2014]
Featuring songs that date back twenty years, it would be easy to dismiss Luther Dickinson’s latest solo album, Rock ‘n Roll Blues, as a vanity project were it not for the refreshing honesty held in its ten songs. Hailing from venerable stock and a lauded musician in his own right, the cofounder of the North Mississippi Allstars recounts his musical journey from his teen years spent as a misplaced punk in Mississippi to the traveling life of a musician earning his chops in bar bands, life in a van, band battles and tacking flyers for unattended shows.
It is the album’s opener, “Vandalize”, which sets the tone. The lines “I grew up on punk rock when I was young / Lived in the country was the only one / For miles and miles nobody around me” and their childish energy owes more to the nascent days of hip-hop channeled through Dickinson’s comrade Jon Spencer than the Hill Country blues of Fred McDowell and the rock and roll associated with his father, musician/producer Jim Dickinson. This father-son disconnect informs the yin and yang aspect that permeates Rock ‘n Roll Blues.
Setting out on his musical diaspora on “Blood ‘n Guts” with its slow groove, Dickinson says “fare thee well” to friends and family to begin the travails of life on the road and the love/hate relationship of band life. The blues stomp of “Yard Man” finds Dickinson returning home, refusing to cotton to the domestic life of “Chopping wood in the morning light” after having his name “Up in lights”. On the title track, Dickinson likens a record contract to slavery, delivering a litany of complaints worn like a badge of honor, all the while paying cash for room service: “God Damn / Working for the man / Poor boy got nothing to lose / Singing those rock ‘n roll blues”. The veiled threat of changing styles following a moment of Divine Intervention on “Going Country” is tongue-in-cheek but again speaks to the family legacy: “My father said, ‘Son, you did the one thing I told you not to do / Memphis boy / Never hang up those rock and roll shoes’”.
Should this sound heavy it is not; Dickinson delivers these tales with a wry sense of humor, backed by a crack band that includes Memphis musician Amy LaVere (Motel Mirrors) on upright bass, and drummers Sharde Thomas and fellow Mississippi All Star Lightnin’ Malcolm. LaVere’s harmonies add depth to the questioning regret of “Stone’s Throw”. The military waltz of “Mojo Mojo” doubles as a tribute to Thomas’s grandfather, celebrated blues fife player Otha Turner, and a homage to the struggles of musicians come before. Knowing Dickinson has earned numerous Grammy nominations during a career that began at age 14 by playing on The Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me doesn’t detract from the redemption of the celebratory closer, “Karmic Debt”, with Dickinson singing, “Every night lost in the sound / Sailing my way back home, homeward bound / If this ol’ world is surely round / Eventually I’ll hit solid ground”.
Self-produced and recorded on home turf, Dickinson lets the warts shine. From the tin can thump of “Vandalize” to buzzing frets and vocals recorded without microphones, Rock ‘n Roll Blues is as raw as its title suggests. Driven by the rhythm players, the minimalism of Rock ‘n Roll Blues is its greatest asset. At times raucous and then restrained, there is an unusual looseness to the songs that are in essence a cycle of coming-of-age tales. “I felt like I definitely had to make this record before I turned 40”, noted Dickinson, as “there’s a difference between the records you make in your thirties and the records you make in your forties.” Citing a need to make everything “primal”, Dickinson has maintained the rambunctious DIY ethos of years idolizing Black Flag, designing punk ‘zines and skateboarding while managing to impart his wisdom earned through years of paying dues. By not glossing over the rough patches in a life spent pursuing a childhood dream, Dickinson provides a grounded perspective and lack of hubris on Rock ‘n Roll Blues — traits today’s generation of overnight superstars may never need to know.