The record sees veteran producer and musician Dickinson gather some of his favorite singers at his family’s famed Zebra Ranch in Independence, Mississippi for a four-day session. The cast he assembled includes longtime collaborators Amy LaVere and Sharde Thomas, as well as the Como Mamas, Birds of Chicago, and Amy Helm. Other guests include Alvin Youngblood Hart, fiddler Lillie Mae Rische (Jack White, Jim Lauderdale), and organist Rev. Charles Hodges (Al Green, Willie Mitchell), as well as Will Sexton and Dickinson’s brother Cody (North Mississippi Allstars).
“When I met Birds of Chicago, we hit it off immediately and I realized that they needed to meet some of my other friends,” Dickinson recalls. He’d done a similar thing for The Wandering, a 2012 collaboration that brought together Dickinson, LaVere, and Thomas with Valerie June and Shannon McNally. “That record was really fun. We made a lot of great relationships and great music after that. More recently, I got to know the Birds of Chicago and the Como Mamas and spent a little more time with Amy Helm, who I’ve known for a long time. I wanted Amy to meet Birds of Chicago and decided to bring them all to Mississippi to make a record.”
The resulting effort is an unsurprisingly soulful and inspiring collection of material that speaks to the cast’s innate talent for American roots music and Dickinson’s mastery for capturing awe-inspiring performances, whether Helm on the previous single, “Like a Songbird That Has Fallen”, the Como Mamas on “Hold to His Hand”, or Thomas on “Fly with Me”. The latest piece culled from the record is LaVere’s “Hallelujah (I’m a Dreamer)”.
Buoyed by her unmistakable bass line and a voice that is timeless in its emotional clarity and unfettered expression, the song is as uplifting as it is heartbreaking, as much of this moment as any other. In this way, Dickinson, LaVere and their cohorts have given us one of the rarest of songs (and albums), one that speaks to the heathen and the heavenly, the contented soul as well as the broken one.
Sisters of the Strawberry Moon will gather for a series of March dates, that will lead up to the release of Solstice (see below). Dickinson, who will re-team with North Mississippi Allstars later this year, recently spoke with PopMatters about this unique project as well as his approach to production and more.
You recorded Solstice at the Zebra Ranch in just a handful of days. How did you prepare for the sessions?
Whenever I’m recording roots music I want the band to support the singer and do whatever it takes to get a good vocal as opposed to just getting a band track and then overdubbing the voice later. I think that’s backwards, at least for roots music.
With this album, so many of the vocals were first takes or even the run-through. “Kathy,” that Allison [Russell] from Birds of Chicago sang, was like that. She put so much into the rehearsal and it was so good, that we just saved that performance. When a singer will commit to the performance and getting the keeper vocal with the band, it makes the rest so easy. Every problem is 95 percent solved. Immediately.
How much of that is being in a space that’s comfortable? Zebra Ranch is your family’s place and you’ve worked there a lot.
It helps. It’s nice to feel like you’re on the clock or in a hurry. You don’t want a lot of distractions. Zebra Ranch is out in the middle of nowhere. There’s nowhere to go, there’s nothing to eat. There’s no Internet. You can bring your own picnic and take a walk through the woods. But I don’t know if comfortable is the right word. Sometimes it’s really cold, sometimes it’s really hot. Sometimes there are bugs or rodents! [Laughs.] But it definitely is rich in ambiance.
The thing is, a classic studio is like a church or your grandparents’ kitchen or your grandfather’s woodworking shop or his garage. It’s a place that’s designed to do one thing. When that one thing is done there for decades and decades it’s like there’s a path there. You come in and fall right in the zone. It makes it easy to happen because the path is so well trodden.
You’ve worked with Sharde Thomas quite extensively. When did you first meet?
I was great friends with her grandfather, Othar Turner. I got to know him in the ’80s, when I was a teenager. In the early ’90s, I started going down to his house and recording his band, The Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. I started playing guitar with him, we were really good friends and at this time Sharde was just a kid. She started playing harmonica by age three or five and was blowing the fife by six or seven. Then she started playing drums.
Othar would have a picnic every August with music all day and night. I would always invite Sharde to play drums with me. She was so easy to play with and so funky and reliable. She was the only drummer who was always there! [Laughs.] Any time I’m not playing with my brother, I’m usually playing with Sharde.
And that’s just her playing drums. Then she took up her grandfather’s tradition of playing Mississippi cane fife. I don’t know how she does it but she plays that thing so beautifully.
Amy LaVere has an amazing voice but she’s developed this real strong voice on the upright bass. You hear it and go, “Yeah, that’s her.”
That’s not the easiest thing to do on that instrument.
She has an inherent groove, such a strong pocket. She and Sharde groove together so well. That’s why we’ve made so many records together. They’re a magic rhythm section. She told me that the first time she picked up an upright she began with this doghouse percussive rhythm. It’s carried her all over the world. She’s a beautiful songwriter. She did a great job on this record because all the artists had sent demos and she learned the songs right away. The fact that she was on point really made this record come together.
We should probably take a second to talk about “Hallelujah (I’m a Dreamer)”.
I’ll say this about that song but it applies to the whole record: What I wanted to do was get these people together, let everyone get to know each other, let them become acquainted with each other’s instruments and aesthetics and talent and then let them dictate what they wanted to do. I just got this group of musicians together and then enabled them to make all their own decisions. I didn’t really have a direction in mind for the song. I allowed the chemistry of these musicians to dictate how the song would end up.
Do you credit that approach to being a musician as well as a producer?
I want to create an environment where we capture the natural instinct. We record really loose and free, then get scientific in post-production. I like to record as if it were a field recording or a jazz recording. But I’ll fix things in post-production, edit them if I need to. My brother and I are the sons of a great record producer [Jim Dickinson], he taught us how to make great records all of our lives. Some things I learned from him and some things are completely different from the way he did it. I just don’t like telling people what to do.
[Laughs.] I know what you mean.
[Laughs.] That’s not how you get people to be free.
I have to ask: What’s it’s like to be in room where the Como Mamas are singing?
Oof! I have to admit that I was standing in the hallway, peeping around the corner. It was so heavy. They filled the room. I didn’t want to be behind them, I didn’t want to be in front of them, so I was just outside their field of vision. I was listening to the room resonate, sitting around the corner. It was a-mazing! Those ladies can really transform a space.
R.L. Burnside could do that. Anywhere he was, he could make you feel like you were at his house party or he was at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint. He transformed any room into his vibe, his environment. His mood would prevail. The Como Mamas do that too. It becomes this place that they conjure up.
You’re going to do some live dates this spring. Are there other things you’d like to see happen with the project?
After we finished, Amy Helm as Birds of Chicago to sing on her last record. Sharde, Amy [LaVere] and I are always working and Birds of Chicago asked me to produce their last album, Love in Wartime, which was a fantastic record and a beautiful experience. These sessions that I invited everyone to took on a life of their own. Whatever shows we play this year, I know that we will continue to play music together. This record will stand as an artifact to our love and friendship that will just go on and on.
March 11th – Chicago, IL – City Winery
March 11th – Nashville, TN – City Winery
March 14th – Atlanta, GA – City Winery
March 17th – Sellersville, PA – Sellersville Theater
March 18th – Boston, MA – City Winery
March 19th – New York, NY – City Winery
March 20th – Washington, DC – City Winery