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Luther Dickinson

A gifted guitarist with an eclectic range of influences, Luther Dickinson has earned a reputation as an innovator in modern blues with a keen understanding and respect for its rich history. Whether co-leading the North Mississippi Allstars, recording and performing solo, or producing and collaborating with artists ranging from Jimbo Mathus and Sharde Thomas to Amy LaVere and Alvin Youngblood Hart, his devotion to (and experiments with) roots sounds from the American South is total: blues, rockabilly, gospel, folk, and raw funky soul are a few of the genres he indulges and recombines on his mercurial recordings. Early garage blues offerings included his participation on Othar Turner's Rising Star Fife & Drum Band's single, "Field Recordings from Gravel Springs, Mississippi," in 1995, and Spencer Dickinson's The Man Who Lives For Love (featuring Luther, Cody and Jon Spencer) in 2001. The North Mississippi Allstars' Electric Blue Watermelon (2005) showcased a rough and rowdy approach to blues and blues-rock, equally inspired by their father, RL Burnside, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Feathers, and Junior Kimbrough. Luther also worked as a producer and sideman with artists such as Willy DeVille, Patty Griffin, and John Hiatt, and initiated a number of projects, such as the Word (with Cody, Robert Randolph, and John Medeski), the Hill Country Revue, and the South Memphis String Band (with Hart and Mathus). In 2013 he worked on Shannon McNally's acclaimed Small Town Talk (Songs of Bobby Charles), LaVere's Runaway's Diary, and his own raucous Rock 'N Roll Blues. In 2017 the North Mississippi Allstars released their most critically acclaimed and globally successful album, Prayer for Peace, and two years later he dropped Solstice, billed to Luther Dickinson & the Sisters of the Strawberry Moon, a collaboration with celebrated female vocalists, including Thomas, LaVere, Birds of Chicago, and Amy Helm. An informal project he created with his children in mind became his first family-oriented release, 2023's Magic Music for Family Folks. Luther Dickinson came from a notable musical family. His father, Jim Dickinson, was an influential studio musician and producer who played piano with Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Los Lobos, and the Rolling Stones, and he produced sessions for Ry Cooder, Big Star, Toots Hibbert, and Mudhoney, among many, many others. Luther was born in Memphis (his father's base of operations for many years) on January 18, 1973. He made his recording debut at the age of 14, adding some guitar howls to the sessions for the Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me, produced by his dad. Around the same time, the Dickinsons moved to Mississippi, and Luther and his family became regulars at juke joints where Southern blues individualists such as R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough still played on a regular basis. Luther's brother Cody, who played drums, became his musical sidekick, and after briefly backing up their dad in the memorably named combo Jim Dickinson & the Can't Hardly Playboys, the siblings formed a funk-influenced punk band with bassist Paul Taylor, called DDT. But the Mississippi hill country blues had a strong influence on the Dickinsons, and Luther began jamming regularly with Othar Turner, one of the last surviving exponents of the Mississippi fife-and-drum tradition. Luther helped produce and compile a collection of Turner's unique music on the album Everybody's Hollerin' Goat, released in 1998. DDT had periodically performed acoustic blues sets under the name Gutbucket (releasing a 7" single on Shangri-La Records), and as Luther and Cody became more interested in cutting new blues music, they teamed up with bassist Chris Chew in 1996 to form the North Mississippi Allstars. In 2000, the group released their debut album, Shake Hands with Shorty, which earned them enthusiastic reviews and a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album. The North Mississippi Allstars developed a following as a stellar live act, and as word of Luther's instrumental prowess spread, he began doing session work, recording with the likes of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Willy DeVille, and Lucero. In 2001, the North Mississippi Allstars teamed up with John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin & Wood) and pedal steel virtuoso Robert Randolph to form an ad hoc group called the Word, who released an acclaimed self-titled album. In 2001, NMAS also released their second album, and Luther remained busy playing live shows and doing session work. In 2005, John Hiatt chose Jim Dickinson to produce his album Master of Disaster; Jim brought his sons in to play on the sessions, and Hiatt was impressed enough that he brought the North Mississippi Allstars on the road with him, serving as both his opening act and backing band. While the NMAS had become a major draw on the jam band circuit with their gift for soulful improvisation, the Dickinsons proved they hadn't lost touch with their punkier side in 2005 when they joined forces with Jon Spencer to record as Spencer Dickinson, cutting the album The Man Who Lives for Love. In 2008, Luther expanded his résumé by joining the Black Crowes, making his debut with the band on their album Warpaint. The same year, Luther backed up John Hiatt again, playing on his album Same Old Man, while Luther would release both a live album (Warpaint Live) and a new studio set (Before the Frost/Until the Freeze) with the Black Crowes in 2009. The year also marked the passing of his father, and only a few days after Jim Dickinson's funeral, Luther led a musical tribute with a number of family friends and musical compatriots at the family's Mississippi studio. The recordings became an album, Onward & Upward, which was released under the group name Luther Dickinson & the Sons of Mudboy. In 2010, Luther became part of another roots music supergroup with the release of the debut album from the South Memphis String Band, which also included ex-Squirrel Nut Zippers guitarist Jimbo Mathus and Grammy-winning bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart. 2012 saw Luther releasing three albums on the same day: his first proper solo album with a set of acoustic instrumentals, Hambone's Meditations; a second album with the South Memphis String Band, Old Times There… ; and Go on Now, You Can't Stay Here, the debut of his new band the Wandering, featuring Valerie June, Amy LaVere, Sharde Thomas, and Shannon McNally. Later that year, he brought out a fourth LP, 3 Skulls & the Truth, created in collaboration with David Hidalgo and Mato Nanji. Luther spent most of 2013 working with his brother in the North Mississippi Allstars (their acclaimed World Boogie Is Coming appeared in the fall of that year), but he also found time to contribute to recordings by McNally, Jim Lauderdale, and Devon Allman. His next solo recording, Rock 'n Roll Blues, was released in early 2014. Dickinson was busy in 2014, touring with the North Mississippi Allstars, and producing guitar slinger Samantha Fish's Wild Heart album. Throughout this period, he was also working in the studio documenting songs he'd learned growing up, revisiting previously recorded originals, and writing new ones, capturing them on tape without overdubs. Throughout, he worked with a large but close-knit group of friends including Thomas, LaVere, Will Sexton, Mavis Staples, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and JJ Grey, to name a few. The result of this journey was Blues & Ballads: A Folksinger's Songbook, Vols. 1 & 2, issued by New West in February 2016. The following year, the North Mississippi Allstars released and toured the globally acclaimed Prayer for Peace, and with Cody he played on In Times Like These by Rev. Sekou. In 2018 he co-produced (with JT Nero) the Birds of Chicago LP Love in Wartime. In 2019, New West issued Solstice, credited to Luther Dickinson & the Sisters of the Strawberry Moon. The album came from a series of live-in-the-studio sessions cut in four days in 2016 that included an alternating cast of female vocalists, including Sharde Thomas, Amy LaVere, Amy Helm, and Birds of Chicago's Allison Russell, each of whom chose their own material to sing. Luther's group of backing musicians included Alvin Youngblood Hart, organist Rev. Charles Hodges (Willie Mitchell, Al Green), Lillie Mae Risch (Jack White), and Will Sexton. 2019 also brought another album from the North Mississippi Allstars, Up and Rolling. 2020's New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers, Vol. 1 documented a 2007 studio session that featured Luther and Cody jamming with their father Jim, guitarists Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart, and harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite. A second volume from the recordings appeared in 2021. 2020 also saw Luther produce Eric Johanson's Below Sea Level, and play on projects with Paul Burch, Seasick Steve, and Bette Smith. Luther and Cody were part of the team that produced and recorded Senegalese guitarist Youssou N'Dour's 2021 release MBALAX, and in 2022 Luther produced G. Love's album Philadelphia Mississippi as well as taking the North Mississippi Allstars back into the studio for the LP Set Sail. As a father who was often on the road, Luther wanted to record some music that would please his children and remind them of his presence while he was away. He recorded songs that had been introduced to him by his parents and that he'd come to love over the years – blues, folk, and traditional favorites – and recorded them spontaneously with friends and family in and around his home. After recording material in 2017 and sharing it with his family on CD-Rs, Luther chose to share the music with the world, fashioning the material into an album, Magic Music for Family Folks, that was released by New West in November 2023.
© Mark Deming /TiVo
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