Luther Dickinson has a penchant for making albums with all-star female casts, but none larger than on this outing with the collective name of “Sisters of the Strawberry Moon.” Inevitably, The Wandering (Amy LaVere, Sharde Thomas, Shannon McNally and Valerie June comes to mind. LaVere and Thomas (three each) return for this outing along with Amy Helm, Birds of Chicago, and The Como Mamas: the latter three each leading two tunes. It’s being heralded as a debut, so let’s hope it’s not a ‘one-off” as The Wandering was.
Dickinson, of course, is a man of many hats. Just this past month he released Amour with fellow producer/guitarist Colin Linden. He and his brother Cody lead the North Mississippi Allstars, h’s played with the Black Crows, he’s been involved in many collaborative projects (i.e. 3 Skulls and the Truth(David Hidalgo, Mato Nanji) and Southern Soul Assembly) as well as has producing LaVere, Jim Lauderdale, Samantha Fish, Eric Lindell and many others; in addition to his solo albums, the most recent of which is 2016’s Blues & Ballads (A Folksinger’s Songbook Volumes 1-2) and countless sideman roles. As a producer his role as guitarist can be as a primary lead (Fish, Lauderdale, LaVere, Lindell) or more supportive as it is here, where the accent is clearly on the vocalists. He told me that he didn’t even want his name on the album, he just wanted to curate and throw the party.
This wide-spanning array of tunes hearkens back to the days of the traveling revue as a rotating group or solo (in this case both) performers front the backing band. The band is spare with Dickinson and JT Nero on guitars, Drew Lindsay on keys, and LaVere on upright bass. In addition to LaVere, some of the vocalists add instruments such as Allison Russell (Birds of Chicago) (banjo and clarinet) and Thomas (fife, keys, and drums).Fiddler Lillie Mae Rische, organist Rev. Charles Hodges, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Will Sexton are among the guests, a group of luminaries too. In live performance, which in their recently concluded seven tour dates, Helm and the Birds of Chicago ( with Russell’s partner, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter JT Nero)), are featured, with Helm playing drums and mandolin. Unlike the album, Dickinson often plays extended inventive guitar and slide guitar leads as well as assuming lead vocals on a few tunes.
Dickinson talks about the project, “The whole idea of this album was to introduce a bunch of friends and get them to collaborate with each other. I wanted to let the chemistry flow, to create an environment where everyone’s flavors naturally blended together and each artist could just be themselves. I think you can feel that freedom in the music. Most of the work was getting the spark lit.”
Most were done in one or two takes as the album was recorded with all people in the room at the same time at Dickinson’s family studio, the Zebra Ranch. Dickinson claims that could not have worked any other way. Each of the five vocalists brought their own penned songs to the session with a couple of exceptions, quite remarkable because most projects of this type feature several cover songs that are familiar to all. The Como Mamas did arrange two traditional songs. You may have already heard two of the stronger cuts, singles – “Like a Songbird That Has Fallen” (Amy Helm) and “Til It’s Gone” (Birds of Chicago).
As you’d expect, there is a gospel current running through most of the tunes, most fervently from the gospel group The Como Mamas, but with the others too. The album plays as sophisticated, restrained, and blended rather than as a roof -rattling, stomping one. The natural, loose feel of the session is evident in the harmonies and the participants’ willingness to add unexpected flourishes. The voices are all lovely and soulful in terms of both lead and harmonies but hearing a clarinet and gut-string banjo (“Kathy,” “Sing to Me,””’Til It’s Gone”) or a Mississippi bamboo cane flute (“Fly With Me”) are examples of those special touches that help shape the uniqueness of this recording. In the live setting, Dickinson’s slide pitted against Russell’s clarinet in call and response is a seldom heard marvel.
This passage from Dickinson appears as the last installment in the liners: – “The music came together and flowed organically, as did the band name. The Sisters of the Strawberry Moon passed the mic, family style, backing each other up with sympathy and empathy, enjoying their newfound chemistry. With instruments as ingredients and songs as recipes, the Sisters of the Strawberry Moon stirred up lovely new concoctions as well as fresh interpretations of family heirloom songs we hold dear. We believe music is a celebration of life and folk music an expression of community and family and Solstice is an artifact of our new friendship and musical fellow.
Join the ever humble Dickinson in sitting back and basking in the beauty of these voices and wonderful vibes emanating from this session. Hopefully we have future installments too.
- Jim Hynes