Mississippi trio returns to its blues-rock roots

Michael Deeds
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Sometimes, Luther Dickinson can attest, father really does know best.

Ever since the North Mississippi Allstars debuted with the gritty, Grammy-nominated "Shake Hands With Shorty" eight years ago, fans have been itching for the trio to get back to its raw, blues-rock roots.

It finally happened on the group's fifth studio CD, "Hernando." But, singer-guitarist Dickinson admits, this would not have been the case had it not been for his dad, aka famed Memphis producer Jim Dickinson.

"I was right in the middle of (messing) this record up," Luther Dickinson, 35, says with a laugh. "I started writing love songs and pop songs and all kinds of different songs, and they were nice and all, and I was into them because they were new songs to me."

When he brought his work into his dad's studio - aka "The Barn" - Pops responded decisively: "He was like, `Nope, nope, get this out of here!'"

Fortunately, the Allstars - which include younger brother Cody Dickinson (drums, keyboards) and Chris Chew (bass) - had 22 songs. Eleven made the cut. They're the best Allstars CD, well, arguably ever. The first half of the album, in particular, is a blues-rock firestorm for the Dickinson boys, who grew up influenced by their father's career and tastes.

"He rocks his (butt) off, man," Luther Dickinson says proudly. "He opened up for Bo Diddley in `57 or whatever. He goes way back."

If the songs on "Hernando" (the name of the boys' hometown in Mississippi) go way back, too - at least to 2000 - it's not an accident. Getting back to the original "Shorty" vibe has "kind of been the unspoken goal," Dickinson says. "There's just something instant and magical about that period of time."

"We were just some desperate kids in a barn with an ADAT machine at that point," he says. "And ever since then, it's been like trying to get back into that head space, you know what I mean? For whatever reason, it's hard to make a record like that. It's weird. There's lots of things that are seductive about the studio."

The onstage firepower of the Allstars has never been called into question. In fact, Dickinson's guitar prowess recently landed him a second job as a member of the Black Crowes. Obviously, it's a plum job, and Dickinson's playing should fit in perfectly. On "Hernando," he seems barely able to tame his snarly, grimy tone.

But, like, aren't the Crowes getting to be old burnouts and stuff?

"Well, man," Dickinson laughs, before letting out a Jeff Spicoli-style guffaw, "I fit right in!"

Joining the Black Crowes was not a decision that Dickinson took lightly. But because the Allstars decided to tour less beginning in 2007, and the Crowes have cut back in recent years, the juggling act should work, Dickinson says.

Nevertheless, the other two Allstars had to bite the pride bullet.

"It's pretty hard on them," Dickinson admits. "But we're going to be OK. We're going to keep the band together and work as much as we can. I just know in my heart and see in the future that we'll be an old band playing some blues club in New Zealand, you know what I mean? I know that we'll be together, and it's cool. It's cool, man. Yeah, I love playing music with my brother."

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