North Mississippi All-stars

An old roll of film was the inspiration for a new musical accompaniment: The North Mississippi Allstars’ Up and Rolling. The photographs were taken before the turn century and echo the music of four families hailing from the Mississippi hills. The album captures that communal spirit which inspired the founding of the band.
Wyatt McSpadden from Texas was a 1996 photographer who traveled to North Mississippi to photograph musicians. Born just south of Memphis, brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson grew up playing experimental rock and roll. They also inherited the roots repertoire from their father, Jim Dickinson, who was a legendary producer (Big Star, the Replacements, and session player) (Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan). They were firmly rooted in the North Mississippi mud music scene and were eager to show Wyatt around the area and introduce him to the musical family of Otha Turner and RL Burnside.

Otha Turner’s farm was their first stop. Luther says that he was the last remaining fife and drummer in the hills in his late 80s. He looked sharp that day, dressed in Sunday clothes and ready to have a good time. They sat together on Otha’s front porch, which was like a classroom for the older Dickinson brothers. They would sit together for hours, with the boy playing guitar and the old man creating lyrics. That was how “Call That Gone”, a song that came to be known as “Call That Gone”, was born, many decades before it was recorded by the Allstars for Up and Rolling.

Otha entertained Wyatt with an impromptu show featuring his family’s band of drummers. The fife player then sent them down to Junior Kimbrough’s nightclub. They crossed the county line in order to see Junior and his Soul Blues Boys performing electrified, multigenerational cotton patches blues in their unique style. Later that night, RL Burnside arrived at the bandstand, a beer in hand, to destroy the place. Luther recalls that Wyatt was so easy to photograph, nobody even noticed. “No one was self conscious or posed. Wyatt wore a cloak that concealed his invisibility.

After the Peavey amps had been turned off and the jukebox disconnected, Cody was and Luther were free to part ways with the Texan. Wyatt shared some of the images with Otha, the Dickinsons, but no one else saw the rest for many decades. Wyatt’s photographs were lost forever. They had other things on their minds, including a new band that they imagined as a loose group of local musicians playing the community’s music.

A month after Wyatt took those photos, the North Mississippi Allstars made their Memphis debut, incorporating their father’s concept of roots music as a framework for improvisation and blending experimental/psychedelic excursions into Hill Country anthems. Luther relates that “after NMA first shook em’ down in Memphis”, RL Burnside hired him to tour with him. Slowly, a natural momentum started to build that eventually led Cody and me to travel full-time. With the 2000 release of Shake Hands with Shorty, our lives were forever changed. We were transported by the music that rings through the hills and it became our home away form home as we started touring the world. We lost track of both time and ourselves in orbit.” Otha_Luther.jpg

The Allstars are one of the most well-known roots bands, thanks to Shake Hands With Shorty. They have ten studio albums and three of them were nominated in the Blues Album of the Year Grammys. (Luther also received four additional nominations in different categories. They’ve performed countless shows in front avid audiences, including tours with Robert Plant, Patty Griffin and Mavis Staples. Luther says, “I’m thankful to work with Cody, the musicians that we roll with, and the people who support the live shows.” We keep this music alive and well together.

The Dickinson brothers were far from home after all those years of touring, as well as the people who taught them this song. Luther says that the elders died in our absence – Junior, Otha and RL, our father. “Every time we came home, it was less familiar.” Wyatt shared the photographs with the brothers in 2017. “The images blew my mind and stopped me in my tracks. These photographs captured the music that changed our lives. Cody and me wanted to let the music loose and record an album that would accompany these photos. It would show what Mississippi music sounds like today. We created this soundtrack from the fantasies of what radio music might have been like in 1996. Living Free, Bump That Mother and Drunk Outdoors sing about Mississippi life, whether it’s our reality, memory, or dreams for the future.

Wyatt’s photographs inspired the Allstars to return home to the Zebra Ranch to record the record. We trimmed the wisteria and empty the traps. Then we swept out the barn. We started to conjure up modern Mississippi music, old and futuristic, by grabbing the old computers and tube amps.

They also covered original songs, along with Sharde Thomas, Otha’s granddaughter, and Cedric Burnside. Luther says that she was just a child when she was his apprentice and heir of the bamboo throne, fife, and drum music. “Now she is the Queen of Hill Country and my favorite singer partner.” Luther says that she has been “the Queen of the Hill Country” since she was a child. “She read the lyrics from her grandfather and then proceeded to sing it in one take. It was almost as if she was singing from her entire family’s collective soul.

Two tracks feature Cedric Burnside (RL’s grandson and two-time Grammy nominee). It’s an honor playing with Cedric. “Out on the Road” was a highlight on the RL tour that we performed together in ’97. He sang his heart out on the updated version.

Luther says that when we record a record, we invite our closest friends and family to join us. Recording with musicians you are touring with or hanging out with helps to capture the record’s time frame. Mavis Staples leads them to church to sing “What You Gonna Do?” Jason Isbell joins the recording to record the tune. “Our father recorded “Mean Old World” with Eric Clapton and Duane Allman during the Layla sessions. Jason invited me to record an acoustic, slides guitar duo version. Cody had the idea for the arrangement and wanted to record it with Jason and Duane. Mean Old World was used as a platform to make a powerful statement about roots rock guitar today.

Cody says, “It is all inclusive.” Everybody is welcome, the bar is always open and there are no cover charges. We are committed to Hill Country music and we will not compromise that vision. North Mississippi is home to a lot of talent, so I am always learning. Being in this band for so long is the best part. It’s been a great experience to create a unique sound and identity. It’s truly a blessing. We do our best to keep the music true to form.

Up and Rolling was inspired by the music and community of that Sunday 20 years ago. Luther believes that the music is not rooted but spreads from the kudzu forest over Junior’s concrete slab to Otha’s porch boards through the Zebra Ranch razor wire chain link fencing. Music transcends time and space and reaches out into darkness like the wisteria plant, searching for open-hearted souls to grab onto and embed into the foundations and hate. It slowly tears down walls one generation at a.

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