North Mississippi Allstars
Up and Rolling
This is the New West debut for the venerable North Mississippi Allstars (NMA) and it gets back to their original roots of communal inspired music in Mississippi’s North Hill Country. Joined by a slew of guests, befitting a country picnic or barbeque that’s common in the area, Luther and Cody Dickinson invite several notables to their Zebra Ranch. Mavis Staples, Jason Isbell, Cedric Burnside, Duane Betts, and Sharde Thomas (who is now apparently a member of the NMA), and others too. It was a forgotten roll of film that served as an inspiration for a soundtrack of sorts. Shot before the turn of the millennium, the photographs resonate with the music of four renowned families of the hill country, the very fabric of that thick, heavy sound – Otha Turner, RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and the Dickinsons too.
In 1996 a photographer from Texas, Wyatt McSpadden, traveled to North Mississippi looking to photograph local musicians. It was the Dickinson brothers who showed him around, in a time when they were just forming the NMA. After all, they had grown up there with those very same families and were steeped in both that North Mississippi hill country blues sound and the rock n’ roll from their famed father, Jim Dickinson. Luther says, “Wyatt was so smooth nobody felt he was taking phots. No one was self-conscious or posing. Wyatt had a cloak of invisibility.” McSpadden’s original photographs and session photos from 2019 grace the 22-page inner booklet, which is, to this writer anyway, as much a draw as the music.
It’s not only the photos but Luther’s writing that is absolutely a must read. Here is a passage but PLEASE, if you pick up this album, read the whole damn thing. – The one chord trance boogie of Otha Turner, Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside’s called me out into the night, off the beaten path into the woods. I forged my style of psychedelic open tuned fingerpicked bottle neck country blues guitar by combining the horizontal melody of Fred’s slide guitar and Otha’s bamboo cane fife with rock n’ roll tube amp power and thumb picker rhythmic boogie as marching drums in the distance. Hollow body electric guitars, on the verge of feeding back, sing and howl. Sustained bottleneck as whammy bar, manipulates the feedback gods while barley holding them back at the gates of burn out infinity. And this, his ending paragraph in the Epilogue – World boogie is rooted but spreads evasively from the kudzu jungle grown over Junior’s concrete slab and Otha’s porch boards through the Zebra Ranch’s razor wire chain link fence. Transcending time and space, music reaches out into the dark of night like the wisteria vine, looking for free-hearted soul2s to latch onto and wedge into the foundations of hate, slowly tearing down walls a generation at a time.
It was only a few short months after the photographs were taken, that the NMA made their debut, alluded to in the previous passage. When the band released Shake Hands with Shorty in 2000, they never looked back until perhaps now. McSpadden tracked the brothers down in 2017 and the brothers were stunned to see the music that changed their lives captured in his photography. So, think of the music as an accompanying soundtrack. This takes us back to the hill country sound of 1996. You can practically envision the back roads to Otha Turner’s home, Junior Kimbrough’s nightclub and RL Burnside’s house parties.
The NMA trio with brother Cody playing multiple instruments and Carl Dufrene on bass is now augmented by Sharde Thomas (Otha’s granddaughter) on vocals and fife and Sharisse Norman on vocals. The album is a mix of originals and favorite songs from their local heroes. Luther calls Sharde his favorite singer and Queen of the Hill Country and she is featured in duets on RL Burnside’s raunchy “Peaches” with Luther’s absolutely screaming guitar, and her grandfather’s tune, the opening “Call That Home.” Mavis keeps all on the freedom highway with her family’s classic “What You Gonna Do?” Cody Dickinson formed a new arrangement for Little Walter’s “Mean Ol’ World,” a tune that their dad helped Duane Allman and Eric Clapton record on Layla. Jason Isbell invited Luther to record an acoustic duo version but instead, Isbell and Duane Betts do an electric version per Cody. Isbell shares vocals with Luther.
Other notables include Cedric Burnside (King of the Hill Country), RL’s grandson, singing and playing guitar on “Out on the Road” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” The sisters, Tierini and Tikyra Jackson of Southern Avenue, harmonize on “What You Gonna Do?”, Living Free,” and “Drunk Outdoors.” Otha Turner’s voice is heard on “Otha’s Bye Bye Baby” and instrumentalists the Rev. Charles Hodges, Roosevelt Collier and Garry Burnside appear on select tracks.
This may well be the rawest, most deeply felt, authentic hill country sounding North Mississippi Allstars album yet. Listen to it, read the liners, and listen again because you may not be done reading.
- Jim Hynes