Luther Dickinson gained his fame by mining blues and roots traditions and turning those sounds into something new. Whether solo, with his brother Cody as the North Mississippi Allstars, or as part of various other acts, Dickinson turns both technical skill and organic recording sensibility toward music that pays homage without bogging down in the past. For new release Solstice, recorded with an assemblage of star vocalists called Sisters of the Strawberry Moon, Dickinson and his peers build on that attitude, taking old and new songs and giving them a unified feel that could be dropped into nearly any era.
The album relies on the work of the vocalists and Dickinson’s approach to recording. He’s said that he likes to record “fast and loose”, and he especially wants to get a good live vocal as the foundation of a roots recording. With a group that includes Allison Russell (from Birds of Chicago), Amy Helm, Amy LaVere, Sharde Thomas, and the Como Mamas, plenty of talent and flexibility was on hand to move quickly and get fresh tracks. The artists gathered and promptly pulled together songs and arrangements, pushing to find whatever sorts of instruments or harmonies worked for a given track. The resulting album shows both the relaxed atmosphere of the project and the skilled professionalism of the results. It’s not a discredit to say the group recorded a laid-back jam with the deliberate intent of preserving it for posterity (Dickinson’s merger of fun collaborator and thoughtful historian).
All of that would be just an interesting footnote if the songs and performances themselves weren’t so good. With every vocalist or vocal group getting two or three tracks, no one manages to take over the record. The Como Mamas – perhaps the most logical partners for Dickinson given their Mississippi geography and musical origin – change the tone of the album the most. These three singers have big voices and a strong gospel focus, and the lack of musical accompaniment makes “Hold to His Hand” and “Search Me” into Como songs. That’s beautiful, but the presentation runs the risk of derailing the collective feel of the album. Instead, it merely reveals another approach to the tradition, part of a conversation happening not within a song or a sequence, but across Solstice.
Finding highlights across a collaboration this steady presents a problem. Russell’s tone on opening “Superlover” makes for a perfect start, but it’s the harmonies that help define what this album is to be. Thomas at one moment sounds the most country of anyone but then turns to an R&B sound. Likewise, Helm doesn’t leave those deep roots of hers, but “Sing to Me” has as much to do with pop balladry as anything, while still fitting the aesthetic of the collection.
The musicians stay flexible amid changing orchestration, discovering whether a fife is needed or not, and making sure a folk song gets different treatment than the blues. The whole recording – as intended – sounds more polished than a group of friends merely playing while the tape rolls. The vibe changes enough that it’s not just a bunch of talent at a cookout. It stays consistent enough that it does feel like a photo album of only one vacation. Dickinson and the Sisters pin down a particular moment as part of a more significant look at roots music not as an individual endeavor, but as a collective enterprise.