North Mississippi Allstars: A New Expedition

north-mississippi-allstars:-a-new-expedition

photo by Jason Thrasher

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Luther and Cody Dickinson are always open to collaboration. As the co-founders, and only constants, of the North Mississippi Allstars since the band’s inception 25 years ago, the Dickinson brothers have welcomed a revolving door of supporting musicians and special guests over the past few decades, and Robert Randolph, Jason Isbell, Mavis Staples, Otha Turner and Oteil Burbridge are just some of the players who have graced the group’s records. Luther and Cody have also kept busy collaborating outside of the band, touring with Anders Osborne as North Mississippi Osborne and producing music for artists like Samantha Fish, Lucero and Birds of Chicago.

“The original concept of the band back in 1996 was to be a loose collective of musicians connected by the local repertoire,” Luther says. “That concept was almost more like an art project. I was so fascinated with Hill Country music.”

Over the years, the North Mississippi Allstars have carried on the sound and legacy of the Hill Country blues, all while establishing their own potent blend of Grammy-nominated American roots music. 

With Set Sail, their 11th studio album, North Mississippi Allstars start a decidedly new era. Set Sail is the band’s first record to feature bassist Jesse Williams, who joined the group during a European tour in 2019, and New Mastersounds vocalist Lamar Williams Jr., the son of the late Allman Brothers bassist Lamar Williams. Beyond sharing a last name— but no relation—the two newest members of the North Mississippi Allstars family share a quality that’s proved to be important for many of the musicians Luther works with. Jesse and Lamar are second[1]generation musicians, just like the Dickinsons. 

“It’s just a really natural, unspoken thing,” Luther says. “It’s so fortunate to grow up and [feel like] being a musician is just second nature. You still have to forge your own path, but you see that it’s possible. I have friends, especially now, gathering students and trying to pass along music and the creative process to the next generation. I see people that are first-generation musicians struggling in ways that second generations don’t: grasping the lifestyle, grasping the commitment, grasping the process and what it takes. For second-generation musicians, it’s just natural. Music and family is, to me, very intertwined.”

That idea of family extends beyond “blood family,” as he puts it. To that point, Luther notes that Jesse “plays like a sibling—it’s a telepathic thing.” Jesse’s bold playing style—and the way he jumped right in on the road—helped the band tighten their sound and work on their latest batch of originals. Then, the pandemic put the band’s seemingly never-ending tour on hold. 

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Being stuck at home for the better part of a year actually proved to be a fruitful experience for the Dickinsons. Luther says that he dusted off a number of songs that he’d already been working on and began tinkering with them, remotely, with the rest of his band. 

“Lockdown was really great for my drumming,” Cody adds. “It was a very cool, productive time. I had tons of time to practice and expand my kit with percussion. I spent time experimenting with cowbells on top of my cymbals, bongos above my floor toms. There are lots of those kinds of things on this record. We just put the work in every day until we finished.”

“It was really, really fun,” Luther adds. “The richness of time—you cannot buy or fake it in art. You can’t force it, you can’t buy it. All these songs started with the acoustic guitar and the voice. I would build something, send it to Cody, send it to Jesse and build it some more.”

But there was something missing. In early 2021, Luther reached out to Lamar and sent him what would become the album’s two-part title track.

“Luther calls like, ‘Hey, man, you want to get on a song?’ It was as simple as that,” Lamar recalls. “It started as one song, ‘Set Sail.’ It just caught me, man. I was like, ‘Whoa, these dudes are onto something’ and I knocked it out. They loved it. So Luther was like, ‘Hey, man, that was pretty good. You want to do another one?’ Same process. I recorded it, we all loved it and he called back with another one. This went on for every song.” 

Luther, Cody and Lamar had crossed paths over the years, yet it wasn’t until a December 2019 Allman Family Revival show at the Mission Ballroom in Denver that Luther had the idea to work with Lamar in a more formal capacity. Blackberry Smoke singer and guitarist Charlie Starr was set to sing “Come and Go Blues” but his voice was shot, so he asked Lamar—who was already doing his best Gregg Allman impression on “Ain’t Wastin Time No More” and “Trouble No More”— to sing with him. “To watch that, I was like, ‘Oh, what a kind, human exchange that was,’” Luther recalls. “And then, to watch them sing together, I was like, ‘Man, Lamar, what a cool dude. I want to sing with that guy. I want to make music with that dude. What a nice spirit.’” 

Lamar would join the Allstars a month later in Atlanta during a guest-heavy gig that included appearances by Ori Naftaly, Butch Trucks’ son Vaylor Trucks and former Widespread Panic drummer Todd Nance. (It would turn out to be Nance’s last live show before he passed away a few months later). 

A year after that Atlanta stop, Lamar started contributing to Set Sail. He ended up adding vocals to six of the album’s 10 tracks and is now a full-fledged touring member of the band. Bringing the connection full circle, his first proper tour as a member of the Allstars was a co-bill with Blackberry Smoke.

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Throughout Set Sail, Luther and Lamar often sing as one—an impressive feat considering they recorded their vocals remotely and independently. Luther is no stranger to sharing lead vocals—Sharisse Norman, who adds to Set Sail’s pop-infused “See the Moon,” and Shardé Thomas often play that role—but Lamar’s approach was something new.

“I love singing with people,” Luther says. “But I’ve never found a male singing partner like Lamar before. Usually the ladies sing an octave above me. Lamar would sometimes do unison and then embellish around me because he’s got such a rich harmonic sense.”

“I would just hear all these different pentatonic scale harmonies around his vocals,” Lamar adds. “It was a different approach for me because I’m used to being a lead singer. I’ve never sung in unison with anybody [quite like this.] I was like, ‘Where do I fit in?’ I come from quartets and gang vocals so I just found the thirds and the fifths, as far as the harmonies that would work really well for what he was doing. He’s got such a smooth register down low, so I figured, ‘If we just throw a little bleed over on the top, then that’s the perfect blend as far as presenting it to people and being able to still hear Luther.’ So that was my thought process: just to be out of the way. Once I finished ‘Set Sail,’ I had a road map in my head of how to approach each one.”

The relaxed nature of the remote recording process—being able to spend time with the kids, taking things slow— paid dividends for Set Sail. Though 2019’s Up and Rolling was a loose, blues[1]heavy, improvised in-studio affair, Set Sail is more focused and subdued—a soulful and patient record. The remote process also allowed guests like John Medeski to contribute their ad-hoc parts from afar. 

“We had to record this from the house, so it gave us some freedom,” Lamar says. “We were so relaxed and focused. We could be in the house with the kids and everything. So it was great. Working online was easy enough for everybody to adapt to. It was my first time ever doing it like that.”

Having the kids around also influenced the music. Luther has a cleaner, more patient, and less crunchy guitar tone throughout Set Sail. “That was largely influenced by my daughters because they just do not care for aggressive, loud, noisy guitar,” he says.

And like his dad, the late producer and musician Jim Dickinson, once did for him, Luther decided to put his children Lucia and Isla Belle on the record.

“Listening to my nieces sing on ‘Didn’t We Have a Time’ and ‘Authentic’ brings me endless joy,” Cody says. “I’m so proud of them, and their voices sound amazing. That is, by far, my favorite part of the album.”

Luther compares recording Set Sail to the band’s 2000 debut, Shake Hands With Shorty. “[In both cases,] we really had the luxury of time,” he says.

“Lots of first and second takes on this record,” Cody adds of Set Sail. “After I get the take and the song ends, I just keep playing. Very cool, spontaneous moments come about this way, that might not happen otherwise. Recording remotely opens up a lot of new opportunities to be creative.” 

Luther also credits their dad for instilling in them the importance spontaneity can have on a recording— even in this new-to-them paradigm.  “We learned from our dad,” Luther says. “We tried to protect the initial first take, the spontaneity. With home recording, we found that, especially Cody and I, we’re so telepathic. We actually captured more spontaneous and inspired recordings in our pajamas then if we’d have been in the room. Being in the room together can get awkward.”

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Luther remains the lyrical driving force on Set Sail with one distinct exception. Midway through, Set Sail gets a jolt of energy from legendary 82-year-old Stax soul singer William Bell, who fronts the band on the album standout “Never Want to Be Kissed.”

“Co-writing with William was an amazing experience,” says Cody, who got to know Bell while co-producing the 2014 documentary Take Me to the River. “We wrote ‘Never Want to Be Kissed’ in one sitting at his studio in Atlanta. William had the concept and the hook ready to go, we just expanded on his ideas and extrapolated the music. Once he started singing, we just followed him. William’s enthusiasm is totally infectious.”

“I’ve never seen anybody write a song like this,” Luther says. “He had the plot, like it was a movie. And he explained the whole scenario of the song to us. And then we just shaped it into a track.” Luther has yet to use Bell’s model in his own songwriting—though he does tell a rare narrative in the hard blues of “Outside”—but he did take songwriting inspiration from the work of Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia. Luther didn’t grow up a Deadhead and only saw the band live once as a teen in Memphis. (However, he says that he did enjoy Dead tour LSD.) But, he learned to appreciate the Dead while touring as a member of The Black Crowes in 2013—it was always playing on in the bus—and he and Cody have since played gigs with Phil Lesh. That’s when he realized it was the lyrics, not the often complex music, that drove the Dead’s songs. 

“This record is definitely influenced by the Dead,” Luther says. “The way I put the songs together—as far as letting the songs breathe and not trying to make them all symmetrical and perfect—I definitely learned that from the Dead, [without sounding like the Dead].”

“Luther was a genius on this album,” Lamar says.

The song that really knocked him out was album-closer “Authentic,” a socially conscious rallying cry against gun violence and racial hatred in America— and the power that music has to bring people together. 

“For him to say what he was saying, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh,’” Lamar says. “That song touched home. Being a Southern boy, you know, we’ve seen guns our whole lives. They are around everywhere. [For Luther] to speak plainly to the general public just floored me. I actually had to call him and make sure the lyrics were correct.”

“What I love about singing it with Lamar is that it makes it more timeless,” Luther adds. 

Really, there’s a timeless quality to all of Set Sail—in part because many of these songs have been floating in Luther’s orbit for a while and, in part, because Luther didn’t want this to be a pandemic record. 

“Because I’ve been working on the songs for so long, and because of the lyrics, they weren’t about quarantines or lockdowns,” he says. “I was able to shape them and kind of shape the stance, and the mood, to exactly how I was feeling. I’m glad that I didn’t finish them years ago.”

Luther chokes up while talking about the bluesy “Rabbit Foot,” which finds the 48-year-old musician contemplating his legacy and his dad, who died in 2009. “It comes back to music being a realm in which we can commune with our loved ones,” Luther says, noting that former bassist Carl DuFrane passed away in 2020. “It’s hard to talk about. It’s such a long process, the mourning cycle. It took me 10 years to feel normal about [my dad’s death]. But that’s the beauty of the music.

“A specific thing about ‘Rabbit Foot’ is the line: ‘Our father’s spirit resonates with legacy/ He roams the woods and he paints the trees,’” Luther says. “Our dad always said that he wanted to reach a point in life where he could just wander around in the woods and paint the trees on his property. And he never did. But maybe that’s what I was thinking. 

“The music is powerful, man,” he continues. “‘Conjure’ is a word that Lamar turned me onto and, when he’s onstage, he’s trying to conjure a mood. Music is a powerful element—and you can use it.”

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