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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There's a little secret I'll let you in on. When you enjoy what you do, when playing guitar and singing are what you're trained to do and it's what you love, well, it's not that difficult. Time just flies by. You get into the zone, and it's like living a dream. It's like being in a dream.

Luther Dickinson on all night sit-ins


That peculiar intersection of LSD and "Three Hundred Pounds of Joy" surfaces in the Allstars' music at times, where their blues bounce carries long haired concertgoers away on a rainbow Slip 'n' Slide. Hernando taps into this with "I'd Love To Be A Hippie," a smiling creeper sung by bassist Chris Chew, who rounds out the trio.

Chris Chew by Josh Mintz
"You listen to those early ZZ Top records and there's no love song or pop ballad but there's a slow blues. You need something to contrast the riff-rock and the slow blues ballad is the perfect thing to break it up," says Luther. "Chris has really come into his own. One of the next things we have to do is his solo record, which will be straight, hardcore soul music."

However, for the hints of Flower Power in their sound, don't expect the Allstars to start singing about smiling on your brother or starting peace rallies.

"On the tour with Mavis and Charlie, we played [Black Sabbath's] 'War Pigs' every night. But, I haven't been able to write a protest song. Some cats are cut out for it and some aren't," observes Luther. "It's cool that Neil Young put out his record [Living With War] and Bruce [Springsteen] put out his record [Magic], and Michael Franti is amazing at his message, but for me it comes back to that R.L. Burnside philosophy of whatever place you're at you should try and give it that clapboard juke joint feeling. Maybe I'm a little better at escapism [laughs]."

Hernando is looser than their past couple records, showing greater continuity with the Allstars' freewheeling live shows. Dickinson says they welcome happy accidents but also understand the value of discipline. It's wisdom picked up from friends like Col. Bruce Hampton and alumni of his peculiar boot camp.

"Jeff Sipe says, 'Go out on a limb and break it!' Yeah! If you play in the Colonel's band he doesn't want you drinking water. He damn sure don't want you taking a drink. No smoking cigarettes, no flirting with the crowd. It's all about the music. He says, 'If you go to the dentist you don't want him making eyes at your girlfriend. Or if you go see Michael Jordan you don't want to see him drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette.' It's professionalism," recounts Luther. "What he really laid on me that really changed it up was, 'If you get 10 people or a 100,000, just don't let it get to you. Don't be discouraged, don't be intimidated, don't be frustrated because that's just your ego fuckin' with you. If you can bring yourself to come through on the music night after night, get in the zone and do your thing, then nothing will throw you.' That's a muthafucker right there!"

Cody Dickinson by Josh Mintz
"You can't let [small crowds] get to you. Or you could be playing Jazz Fest and there's 50,000 people. You can't let that get to you either. Cody really loves packed, sweaty bars and I really like a half-empty Fillmore. I like the more spacious rooms. Let's the people breathe, let's the music breathe. Outdoor festivals are the ultimate. It's a celebratory experience and it should be outside."

Luther Dickinson is a sit-in king at festivals, wandering the grounds, guitar on his back, looking for an amp to jump. "I'm a ho'," he laughs. Even after playing marathon sets with his own band, he's usually ready for more. "There's a little secret I'll let you in on. When you enjoy what you do, when playing guitar and singing are what you're trained to do and it's what you love, well, it's not that difficult. Time just flies by. You get into the zone, and it's like living a dream. It's like being in a dream. It's what it's all about."

The day I spoke with him, Luther was knee deep in a blues super group session at Zebra Ranch with Musselwhite, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Jimbo Mathus, his dad and the Allstars.

"Our home studio is like our little family church. I can be at home but until we do a session in the barn I don't really fell like I've made it back yet. I've got no interest in recording our music anywhere else now," says Luther. "You'll never be able to recapture the blues of '20s and '30s. You just take it in and that naturally turns into rock 'n' roll. Local musicians, white and black, influenced Jimmy Rodgers, and then he put out records that influenced John Hurt and Furry Lewis, who in turn influenced a generation of white dudes. It jumps back and forth between the generations and races. That's what I love."

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The trio is great but there's also something seductive about playing in a big band, which may be part of why I wanted to be part of the Crowes. It's a huge wall of sound to be surfin' on top of. It's fun and it suits me. I love singing and writing but when it comes down to it, I just want to play.

Luther Dickinson

Photo of Luther Dickinson by imaphotog

"It's important for us to make homemade records in our own studio. The last two [NMA] records were done in Memphis, which is great and an honor and tradition, but in this day and age I think that atmosphere and the intangible vibe is more important than sonic clarity. The records I love aren't perfect. I heard [The Replacements'] Pleased to Meet Me, which my father produced, and it was the imperfections of that record that really hit home for me. If they'd made that record five years ago it would have been WAY more polished. I had to tell my band [with Hernando], 'If the vocals are out of tune, well, so be it [laughs].' Just let it be."

North Mississippi Allstars
Luther and Cody also worked with spectacular songwriter and roots rocker John Hiatt on 2005's Master of Disaster album, where the siblings formed the core backing band with legendary bassist David Hood, father of Drive-By Trucker Patterson Hood.

"That was super cool, man. And John, talk about committing! All the vocals on that are live off the floor. That really impressed me and started me on the path that led to Hernando, where we're cutting things live to keep it real," offers Luther. "We spent two summers touring with him, and I played on his new record coming out soon. It's largely acoustic and really really fine. Touring with him, it was great to see people react to songs he wrote but had only heard from Bonnie Raitt or Eric Clapton."

"A real breakthrough for me on this [new] record was collaborating. The band writes a lot of music together, especially Chris, who'll come up with a bassline at soundcheck or something and I'll make note of it for later. He wrote a lot of the riffs on this record. But, this was the first time I'd hang out with someone like Jimbo [Mathus] and say, 'Let's write a song.' My friend Aaron Julison plays bass for Kid Rock, and we'd go to Detroit and just write songs. I love the collaborative aspect of the music but this was the first time as a lyricist that I tapped into that tradition of two cats sitting in a room alone to write songs. It's a beautiful thing," says Luther. "After the last record touring cycle, I didn't write any lyrics for almost two years. Then, I got together with Jimbo. I had tons of music because I'd started working with computers and had documented tons of musical ideas. So, we got together in my dining room, and he said, 'I always wanted to write a song about shaking what your mama gave ya.' And I said, 'Well, I got this riff.' We started going and quickly had the first version of 'Shake.' He's such a jumpstart!"

Another factor putting some piss in Luther's vinegar lately is his invitation to join The Black Crowes last year. He's a major highlight of that band's forthcoming Warpaint album (arriving March 4 on the Crowes' own Silver Arrow label) and will be touring hard throughout 2008 with both the Allstars and Crowes.

"The trio is great but there's also something seductive about playing in a big band, which may be part of why I wanted to be part of the Crowes," comments Luther. "It's a huge wall of sound to be surfin' on top of. It's fun and it suits me. I love singing and writing but when it comes down to it, I just want to play. It's a commitment. You have to lay it down. You gotta come on with the come on!"

The idea of total commitment to each piece of the puzzle is integral to The Black Crowes, and it's heartening to see Luther's own sensibilities dovetail so well with his new bandmates.

"That's an invisible spirit. You can't nail that down. There's an energy you conjure up by touring a lot, playing nightly with the same people, and I don't think you can fake that. It's funny when you're backing someone up and you're supposed play like you've been together for years. It's impossible. You can't fake the funk."

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ScIFreak Thu 1/24/2008 03:03PM
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I'll be the First one to say that Luther is one hell of a guitar player! I don't go to many NMA show's, but the one's I've seen he was more than great. I also just saw one of the Word shows (NYC) and he WAS AMAZING!!!!!!!! As much as I loved Robert Randolph, he stole the show with his guitar licks!! Any way thank's JAMbase for giving us an article about a "jam"band..

moephishH2O starstarstarstarstar Thu 1/24/2008 04:00PM
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Looking fwd to catching 'em next month in Portland. I've NEVER seen a bad NMAS show. They ALWAYS bring the heat...

HoodooVoodoo starstarstarstarstar Thu 1/24/2008 04:01PM
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Luther's brother reminds me of that kid from that movie "Road Trip" with Tom Green. You know...the skinny guy who has the dog that licks the peanut butter off of him. Anyone else see the resemblance?

Chaloupka starstarstarstarstar Thu 1/24/2008 05:43PM
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Word Up!

bigchris starstarstarstarstar Fri 1/25/2008 01:19AM
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Luther is the dirtiest player around. can't wait to hear the new NMAS album and seem them live in a few weeks.

Better get on the black crowes too!

D.B.Higdon starstarstarstarstar Fri 1/25/2008 06:47AM
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Great article, and the writing and phrasing really captures what Luther and the boys are about. I'm really excited about the new venture with the Crowes; adding Luther to the mix really amps their arsenal of rockin tunes. The first few times that I caught the NMA's was early on at the Mangy Moose, and while it was certainly good, I wasn't floored. Then, I caught them on tour with Hiatt, and I was blown away. They were completely on fire opening the show with a full set that was scorching. Then, as the sun was going down, they backed Hiatt for his set, and they dug deep into his vast repertoire and brought out some gems. You could tell that they were all having a great time on stage, and I don't think that I would have had a chance to hear some of these songs had he been on tour with the Goners.

Luther sounds like a real down to earth guy who knows his musical origins and where to assign due credit; building a style but always returning to his influences in respect. I like that he referenced Please to Meet Me (great album) because the Replacements do the exact same thing on that album by paying respect to Big Star's Alex Chilton.

IPowrie Fri 1/25/2008 07:07AM
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Great Article about one of the top bands out there today cant wait to here the new album and the new Black Crowes album to

Ladoo starstarstarstarstar Fri 1/25/2008 07:15AM
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I was able to catch NMA for the first time last summer at Wakarusa and they were great. In my opinion Luther was the star of the festival. I've listened to the new album a couple of times and I feel it's their best yet. These guys are the real deal. I'm excited to see what the Crowes sound like the addition of Luther.

RedHeaven starstarstarstar Fri 1/25/2008 08:47AM
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Luther seems like a dandy to interview. I love the part where he talks about how it feels like your in the dream when you play on stage for hours. Makes me wish I was playing....NMAS rocks....and damn Luther is fun to look at. phew.

donley26 starstarstarstarstar Fri 1/25/2008 12:07PM
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NMAS allways brings the heat...most consistant band out there with the exception to any that d.trucks plays in. Cody is the most underrated drummer ever, the noise that boy makes on one kit is amazing. Make sure to catch them on this tour...melt your face off.

Ezalis starstarstarstarstar Fri 1/25/2008 12:38PM
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This is a great hometown band. I remember seeing them play at our local high school. They have an awesome on stage presence whenever they play, and my favorite is when Cody brings out the washboard.

COLOSKIER starstarstarstar Fri 1/25/2008 03:21PM
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hells yah. nice article, i'll be seeing these guys this sunday night at the paradise in beantown!!!

christophebaise Sat 1/26/2008 04:58AM
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I believe these guys are the hottest band going right now. Can't wait to go see them tonight in Troy.

Hippie_RN starstarstarstarstar Sat 1/26/2008 09:17AM
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nice article.

these guys are all about a good time, as has been said.

i can never pass up seeing these guys when they pass thru town.

seeing the show at 8150 in vail with the 'bouncing dance floor' was one of the most fun bar shows i have eveer attended

luther on slide = sickness

super excited for the new black crowes ensamble

Hippie_RN Sat 1/26/2008 09:18AM
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keep the devil down is a great tune, cant wait to hear that one live

DELYEAH starstarstarstarstar Sat 1/26/2008 11:18AM
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I freakin love NMA! They bring so much raw, dirty ass energy in their live shows, it makes me want to punch the guy next to me and then buy him a beer to apologize. Once Luther starts up the buzzsaw, it's all over.

candise Sat 1/26/2008 12:11PM
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Nice read.

keenan41 starstarstarstarstar Sat 1/26/2008 03:08PM
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I'll be seeing these guys in Troy tonight. These guys never let down

crescentvale Sat 1/26/2008 03:43PM
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NMAS will always bring the heat, check out my jambase for pics.

rdawson124 starstarstarstarstar Sun 1/27/2008 06:34PM
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These guys brought the house down at The Dame in Lex, KY couple years ago. One of the best live acts period.

cocheese starstarstarstarstar Mon 1/28/2008 05:43AM
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these guys are just great, and represent what is so great about music. they really connect with the crowd. I'm really looking forward to seeing them next month at the small and intimate 3rd and Lindsley here in Nashville.

threef starstarstarstarstar Mon 1/28/2008 09:48AM
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The NMAS are going to be on E-Town here this week or the next if you get that show on the radio. When I saw the taping Luther did the sickest version of Dylans Masters of wars. You must take a listen and that song still ring so true of our modern Life during wartime we live in. I can't wait to see these guys in a few weeks in denver

STEG187 starstarstarstarstar Tue 1/29/2008 12:15PM
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Dennis Cook is the Mike Jordan of this shit right here...

FreeHawk starstarstarstarstar Tue 1/29/2008 03:32PM
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NMAS are fucken great. Also a bunch of cool humble guys. Going to snag this album this weekend.

LarryM starstarstarstarstar Tue 1/29/2008 10:19PM
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Does anyone have a extra for the show in Chicago?

raygilly starstarstarstarstar Wed 2/6/2008 10:42AM
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Great article, THANK YOU! And I cannot wait to see Luther with the Crowes!

stellarrstarr starstarstarstarstar Thu 2/14/2008 02:31PM
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North Miss was my first show when I moved to Boulder, Colorado a few years ago. I remember being in a Sold Out room and not knowing a soul ... and dancing my a$$ off like tomorrow wouldn't come ("Shake" speaks to me in some serious ways, my friends!). These boys can BRING it!

Can't wait to relive those memories at the Fox Theatre this weekend! Fri, Feb 15th & Sat, Feb 16th - Coloradoites, where you at?