From the Back Porch with Luther Dickinson

luther-lead.jpgOn a gorgeous Sunday evening in downtown Annapolis, I made my way to the back of the Rams Head on Stage to meet up with guitarist Luther Dickinson before his show that evening with his new project the South Memphis String Band.

After some small talk about the weather Dickinson led me through the backstage area, past the stage where Baltimore singer-songwriter Caleb Stine was warming up the crowd, past the kitchen area (stopping briefly to talk with band mate Jimbo Mathus), and eventually settling into a small backstage room where we could chat.

In conversation the Mississippi bred Dickinson’s Southern roots show through.  He is unfailing polite and speaks with a slow, thoughtful delivery that is peppered with a lot of “yeahs” and “mans.” Each answer comes across with his slight Southern drawl, which serves as a window to his Mississippi Hill Country home.

luther1.jpgThose same southern roots also show themselves in Dickinson’s music.  Whether with his band the North Mississippi Allstars, as the lead guitarist for the Black Crowes, or in any number of side-projects he is involved with, Dickinson’s foot-stomping, juke-joint rocking, hill country blues guitar is always present, proudly following in the footsteps of Mississippi blues-legends Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough, and R.L. Burnside.

His new project is an acoustic trio.  The South Memphis String Band, with Mathus (formerly of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Knock Down Society) and blues-man Alvin Youngblood Heart, is a pure reflection of the Mississippi roots with the three guitarists putting their spin on the Hill Country Blues that inspired them, creating what Dickinson calls “Barnyard Psychedelia.”

The three guitarists set out this spring for a brief tour through the Southeast. Their sets were a loose mix of old blues standards they had learned growing up in Mississippi (including tunes by legends Charlie Patton, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Mississippi Sheiks), solo songs, and new tunes they had recently written.

“We all play multiple instruments (guitar, banjo, mandolin, lap-steel, kazoo) and take turns singing and fronting the group, and then backing each other up," explains Dickinson. "We do groups of two or three songs a piece."

It was reminiscent of times he spent at home. “We have done this before together at various times at each others' house or when we are just hanging out in recording sessions.  Playing acoustically with these two fellas is the best; it’s the closest to what I enjoy doing at home for fun.” 

luther-ayh1.jpgThat fun comes across every night, as the trio spends the show joking and talking and drinking with the crowd, pausing to explain each song, each show going over like a relaxed backyard jam session.  During the show in Annapolis, Dickinson summed it up: “We are taking it from the backwoods and back porches of Mississippi on the road.”

The roots of the South Memphis Sting Band stretch back to when the three musicians helped Dickinson’s dad (producer Jim Dickinson) with a project of his.

“Last January we did a recording session called the New Moon Jellyroll Freedom Rockers.  It was Dad, the three of us, the Allstars, and Charlie Musslewhite,” Dickinson says. “It was like a string band mainly, kind of an electric blues project. That record hasn’t come out yet; it is in the can and we have been shopping it around. 

"But the acoustic portion of it we did there kind of led to the South Memphis String Band. Yeah we had kicked the idea around for a while, and then we all had some time off.  Alvin kind of instigated the thing, but he won’t take credit for it.  We all just blame each other {laughs}.”

luther3.jpgEven though the roots of the South Memphis String Band only stretch back to last year, the connection between Dickinson, Mathus, and Hart runs much deeper than that, as the three have been in and out of each other’s musical life for the last decade.  After a pause and smile, Dickinson remembers, “All three of us have been playing and touring together for a long time.  I played on Alvin’s and Jimbo’s records, and they played on mine.  Both of these guys played with the Allstars on Shake Hands with Shorty in 1999.  We have been working together for that long. 

"I have been friends with Jimbo even longer than that.  He was one of the first guys to take us out on the road.  He had a project called Knock Down Society and he took the Allstars on the road back in the day with him.”

As the trio’s tour dates wind down (Click for a review of their show in New Orleans or here for the tour closer in Memphis), invariably the question "what is next for the three" arises.  A possible recording session for later in the summer is mentioned, but Dickinson also says they have been working on a live compilation of some of the shows they have played, pulling a couple of songs from different nights.

“It would definitely represent what we are doing on this live tour.  It would be real janky, but that is kinda what we have been doing.”  

But just as quickly, he seems to be looking forward to another project with his current conspirators.  “We are working on a rock ‘n’ roll blues garage concept band and we have been writing more for that. The working title is Loose Shoes. Just the three of us again, drums and two guitars.  In conversation I have been writing down crazy things we have been saying, so I think we have been writing more for Loose Shoes than for the South Memphis String Band.”

luther6.jpgFor the always busy Dickinson, this is par for the course.  Moving from project to project and band to band is what he does.  The South Memphis String Band’s tour followed a few dates on the road with the Allstars and the Hill Country Revue (whose new album, Make a Movewas released May 12).  And in the same breath that he mentions Loose Shoes, he is already talking about the Black Crowes' upcoming tour, and the new album they just finished working on, which preceded a short writing stint with the North Mississippi Allstars. With all those different musical ideas floating around, Dickinson seems completely able to separate each of his various projects and allow them to satisfy a unique part of his musical soul.

When asked if the stripped down approach of the South Memphis String Band is going to have any impact on his other bands, Dickinson responds, “No, no,” making it clear that each band has their own distinct identity.

“The Crowes are a really big band, and the Allstars are the trio, and the Hill Country Revue is a big band that does what is does," he says.  "But this (South Memphis String Band) is a chance to play some acoustic music, which is really hard to do in those other settings, so it is perfect.  It is easier for me to keep all my different sides separate." 

For the always busy Dickinson it is just what he does.

“Yeah I can’t help it. Even when I am on the road I like to write or record.  I am just fortunate to be able to play music all the time.”