AFTER THREE YEARS OF PLAYING RICH ROBINSON’S
textural foil and lead guitar moneymaker in the Black Crowes, Luther
Dickinson has raised his guitar game to a LeBron-like level. There’s
little the versatile Dickinson can dream up within the context of his
roots-rock style that he can’t pull off, and the lead North Mississippi
Allstar has never dug deeper into the rich well of his family’s earnest
musical heritage than he has of late.
Dickinson is doing duo gigs with drumplaying
brother Cody, as well as throttling
up the classic North Mississippi Allstars trio
with bassist Chris Chew. Although it may
appear that Dickinson is returning to the
family music business while the Crowes are
on hiatus, the sleepless carrier of the Hill
Country blues torch has really been dealing
with major family business all along.
His father—Memphis soul keyboard and
production guru Jim Dickinson—passed
away in autumn of 2009, just months before
Luther’s baby girl was born.
The Dickinson brothers poured their
pain into Keys to the Kingdom [Songs of the
South] and delivered the deepest NMAS
effort to date. Luther’s guitar parts are
perfectly crafted to the tunes, rather than
the other way around as on the previous
NMAS record—2008’s Hernando. “After all
the lead playing in the Crowes, and all the
riff-rock of Hernando, I’d had enough,” says
Dickinson. “I wanted everything on this
record to stand up on an acoustic guitar.”
“Ain’t No Grave” is possibly the most
heartfelt lyric and vocal Dickinson has ever
delivered, and old family friend Ry Cooder
provides masterful country slide accompaniment
with equal gravitas. Dickinson’s lapsteel
on “Jellyrollin’ All Over Heaven” is
as joyous as Cooder’s slide on “Grave” is
ominous. Dickinson’s double-tracked bottleneck
slide outro to the CD’s centerpiece,
“Hear the Hills,” is a heavenly echo of the
tune’s melody and its lyrics about fearlessly
Dickinson’s evolving acoustic alter
ego is further evidenced on his Grammy nominated
traditional folk album Onward
and Upward and the South Memphis String
Band’s Home Sweet Home. That outfit features
Dickinson, Jimbo Mathus, and Alvin
Youngblood Hart revolving on instruments
such as National resonator guitar, mandolin,
and diddley bow. Dickinson also has
an instrumental acoustic offering due out
soon on the Birdman label.
You’ve been doing lots of playing and recording
I didn’t intend for so much to be going
on at once. Life has just been so heavy in
so many different ways that things like the
Allstars record and Onward and Upward just
started pouring out of me. I guess that’s
just how a songwriter processes life.
What’s the biggest difference between playing
in the Black Crowes and the Allstars?
The biggest difference is the bass—both
tonally and in terms of technique. I grew up
playing with Cody in duos and trios, trying
to fill up as much space as possible rhythmically
and melodically. I’m used to keeping my
thumb going all the time, especially in the
duo. I use a Boss Octave pedal to thicken up
the low end occasionally, though it’s more of
a textural effect than a substitute for bass.
It’s just the opposite in the Black Crowes,
where there’s a keyboard player, a bass player,
and Rich’s rhythm guitar to consider. He
uses ten open tunings, and strums a lot of
open—sometimes dissonant—chords really
loud. We all make very conscious decisions
about providing tight, clean, in-tune support
without having the bass frequencies clash. I
finally stopped playing full barre chords. I’ll
only go as low as the fifth and let the bass
handle all the root notes.
What are your gear considerations in the
Crowes versus the Allstars?
For the Crowes, I used a 150-watt Fuchs
set wide open for the cleanest sound at high
volume, and a 50-watt Fuchs for dirty tones.
For this run of duo shows, I’m using a 50-watt
Fuchs combo for dirty sounds, and a 100-watt
Marshall for clean stuff. The Crowes play so
loud I don’t need a gain booster. For the Allstars,
I still employ an Analogman King of Tone.
I gravitated towards Gibson SGs in the Crowes
because I love how sensitive they are to gain
versus the relatively constant sound of a Les
Paul. For the duo, I’ve been playing a Gibson
ES-335 that Chris Robinson gave me, and a
Hofner Verythin, which is similar to a 335.
The love story of the “New Orleans Walking
Dead” has great vibe, and a cool one-note guitar
string part backing up the harmonica solo.
That song and “Ain’t No Grave” came to
me in dreams. “Walking Dead” is a hilarious
song that my dad would have appreciated
because it’s in a ’50s rock and roll style. It
also sounds kind of like the Cramps, which
were a big influence on me. To get that whirring
guitar sound under the harmonica solo, I
used really fast tremolo picking while fretting
the low E string at the 12th fret. Dick Dale!
What made you decide to cover Dylan’s “Stuck
Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”?
I read a great Bob Dylan article to my dad
at his hospital bedside. He couldn’t speak by
that point, but he took a pad and pen and slid
me a note suggesting I try that Dylan song
as a one-chord Hill Country blues. His band
Mud Boy and the Neutrons always used to
play that song, and I used some of the lyrics
from his version. I used a Harmony Sovereign
acoustic with a D’Armond pickup, and
probably my Gibson 335. The electric guitars
on the whole record are either the 335
or an Epiphone Casino. The acoustic guitars
are either the Harmony, or a custom “Darth
Vader” acoustic made by Scott Baxendale at
Colfax guitars. The D’Armond pickup was a
huge factor in getting a good acoustic sound
running through the electric guitar amps—
usually either a Fender Concert 4x10 or a
Deluxe. Singing and playing live in the studio
was a big factor because the vocal mic picked
up the squeak of the acoustic’s strings, and
acted as a second room mic on the amps for
all the guitar parts.
“Ain’t No Grave” is chilling, and the way the
slide guitar interacts with the vocal is special.
Writing that song about my father’s
death was so powerful that I couldn’t get
past the chords, melody, and lyrics. I called
the slide master—Ry Cooder—and he tore
it up. What he laid down on that track is
the classic Cooder sound. I’m sure he used
the Coodercaster with the lap-steel pickup
in the bridge, although I didn’t see it go
down. I sent him the track, and, according
to his engineer, he did it in one take. If you
listen carefully to the way the song builds,
you can hear him figuring it out, and then
he comes in. Ry gave us exactly what the
Speaking of lap-steel, did you play lap-steel
on “Jellyrollin’ All Over Heaven?”
You got it. You get the prize.
Yeah, well that’s not what you’re playing in
the video, but it’s pretty apparent you’re faking.
My dad gave me an old Supro lap-steel a
long time ago. It sounds so good through a
Fender Concert, and there’s just something
so different about reaching over the top of
the guitar neck like that. “Jellyrollin’” is super
simple. It started out as an improvisation in
the key of G, but that was tough vocally, so
I reworked it in E position and it plays just
fine that way.
What picking style did you use on the rhythm
It’s a standard alternating-thumb folk style
that comes from Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth
Cotten, Fred McDowell, or even John
Fahey. It’s not about sticking to a rigid pattern.
It changes as needed to get the music across.
Lately, I’ve been getting into riding quarter
notes on the low E string, which I saw a badass
old timer from Texas named Mance Lipscomb
do. Everybody does boom/chick alternating
bass patterns, but Mance would just ride that
bottom string, and it sounded tough.
Do you use plectrums or fingerpicks?
Just on bass, because I’m an old school
punk rock bass player. I’ll grab a thumbpick
for a guitar part if I have to, but I play fi ngerstyle
if I can get away with it.
Can you provide some insight on the “Hear
the Hills” outro?
That’s the big guitar moment on the record,
although it’s really just the vocal melody
being played on slide guitar with another
slide guitar improvising over the top. The
song “ends” and then there’s a little Mitch
Mitchell-style drum solo, and then the guitars
carry the tune out. We move through the
verse, the chorus, and the bridge instrumentally.
It’s a total, spiritual tribute to my dad.
Despite grave circumstances, it sounds as if
you managed to have a great time creating Keys
to the Kingdom.
This was the easiest record to make in a lot
of ways. The songs were strong and stood up
for themselves, and Cody played great. Even
the vocals—which usually don’t come naturally
to me—came easy this time. My dad
always said that a production in absentia is
the highest form of art, and he was definitely
producing in absentia on this record. Even
though he wasn’t physically there with us—I
feel it’s our finest collaboration.