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 facing mortality.
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 lately.
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 song needed.
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 track?
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.