NMA: Shake What Your Mama Gave Ya

By: Dennis Cook

North Mississippi Allstars
Put on Hernando (released January 22 on Song of the South Records), the fifth studio album from the North Mississippi Allstars, and in 60 seconds you'll be reaching for a stack of dollar bills and a can of stripper pole polish. Guitarist-singer Luther Dickinson growls, "At the pearly gates/ Beggin' for to pass/ Girl you better shake it like it's gonna save your ass." While folks might argue about their theology there's no denying the way it takes hold of your gonads with an undisguised leer. Produced by Jim Dickinson (father of Luther and drummer Cody) at the family's barn studio, Zebra Ranch, in Coldwater, MS, Hernando crackles with the raw energy of the NMA's live shows.

"It's the most successful [studio release] to capture what we do night after night. We reached a certain level of confidence and a certain way of working, which basically means cutting it live and don't fuck with it, that's really worked for us," says Luther Dickinson. "We cut 22 demos. I ended up writing all kinds of songs – some love songs, some poppier songs – and we let dad pick what he wanted, and he chose 12. It's cool because he picked the rockers. My original goal was to do a straight blues-rock, classic rock album. I'd been listening to a lot of early ZZ Top. [Hernando] is kind of like the records I used to listen to before I discovered Black Flag [laughs]. Greg [Ginn] is a huge influence on me. His riffs are just so fucking heavy!"

The abiding impression of Luther and Allstars has been they're pure blues guys but listen to Hernando's "Soldier" or "Keep The Devil Down" and you'd be forgiven if you thought it was vintage Black Sabbath or even Wolfmother.

"We had a family band with our father, and he taught us lots of roots music, but I also grew up with Van Halen," offer Luther. "Women and Children First was the first cassette I ever bought in third grade, and that led to ZZ Top, AC/DC, Hendrix, Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin. Then I discovered Black Flag, which affected me like nothing else had. When I got to be 13 or 14, I started to accept and dig the blues in a personal way. My father and his band played with Furry Lewis and Sleepy John [Estes], but as a kid I thought of it as their music. At 13, I started playing guitar, and from that point on I accepted it all. It wasn't until the early to mid '90s that I was exposed to the Hill Country Blues. We were living here but I didn't know about it until Fat Possum [Records] came around and I realized there were modern day country blues right here. That changed my world as much as anything."

Luther Dickinson by Adam McCullough
Beginning in 1992, the Oxford, Mississippi label has exposed this gritty version of the blues to the whole country, introducing us to R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Asie Peyton, T-Model Ford and eventually the next generation of blues manglers like Heartless Bastards and The Black Keys. Put on Burnside's A Ass Pocket of Whiskey or Kimbrough's All Night Long and you're instantly transported to a mean, makeshift night spot with the musk of spilled blood, home brew and dance sweat from the jelly roll bakers and black snake moaners. NMA channel this atmosphere so well sometimes it'll give you a hangover.

The first time I heard the Allstars was in a coffee shop in Amsterdam in 2000, stirring a sugar cube and gooey hash into a steaming double espresso, when the sunflower lovely behind the counter slipped on Shake Hands With Shorty, the North Mississippi Allstars' just released debut. Mississippi Fred McDowell's "Shake 'Em On Down" trundled out of the rickety speakers, a perfect mud splattered soundtrack to the sludge slapping my brain around. There's something delightfully unrefined and raucous about the NMA that the intervening eight years have done little to civilize.

"My dad says in the studio misery sticks to the tape. If you're not having fun, it's obvious. It's just gut feelings and street talk that I'm going on," says Luther. "We just did a six-week tour with Charlie [Musselwhite] and Mavis [Staples]. Even though we grew up playing roots music and then Hill Country Blues, he really taught us some blues, man. What trips me out about Charlie is he's a psychedelic warrior! Here's a guy who left Mississippi in 1959, moved up to Chicago and grew up with that whole scene, and then moved to San Francisco in '67 with his first Vanguard record about to come out. He was talking about Howlin' Wolf and Owsley in the same sentence. You can hear that sensibility in his music."

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