Luther Dickinson was born in western Tennessee on January 18, 1973 to Mary Dickinson and famed Memphis producer and musician Jim Dickinson. Raised there, and later in the Hill Country of North Mississippi, family legend has it that young Luther’s first word was “studio”.
It was in this rich musical background that Luther began to play guitar as a child. Luther made his recording debut in 1987 on the Jim Dickinson produced Replacements album Pleased to Meet Me, adding guitar to “Shooting Dirty Pool”. Luther’s younger brother Cody also began playing – first guitar, then drums and keys - and by their early teens, the Dickinson brothers would play behind their father at regional gigs. Years later, they would play with their father again, appearing on his long-awaited sophomore album, Free Beer Tomorrow in 2002, as well as the follow-ups: 2006’s Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger and Killers from Space in 2007.
By the early nineties, the brothers Dickinson had formed their own band, joining up with bassist Paul Taylor to form DDT – a rock band with punk and metal influences. Later, DDT evolved into Gutbucket, an acoustic jug-band-esque outfit which still featured Luther, Cody, and Taylor.
But outside the context of the band, Luther was exploring the musical roots of his home, spending Sunday nights at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint, jamming with Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside and their progeny. He was also learning the fife and drum music of Otha Turner, spending time at his home and playing at his annual picnics. Luther would produce the octogenarian’s 1998 debut, Everybody’s Hollerin’ Goat and the 1999 follow-up From Senegal to Senatobia.
Luther was discovering the Hill Country Blues and it was the genesis of forming the North Mississippi Allstars in 1996. Initially conceived as a loose collaborative of North Mississippi talent, Luther, Cody, and Taylor were to serve as its core and be augmented by a rotating cast of Kimbroughs, Burnsides, and other area musicians. Eventually Taylor left to pursue other interests, and Luther’s former classmate, Chris Chew, joined the band as the bassist.
After releasing an EP, Shimmy She Wobble, NMA made its full-length recording debut with 2000’s Shake Hands with Shorty, a tribute to their home featuring the songs of Junior Kimbrough, RL Burnside, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Shorty was followed by 2001’s 51 Phantom, an album almost entirely comprised of original songs in the Hill Country tradition. Both albums were produced by Jim Dickinson and both garnered the band a Grammy nomination.
But Luther was also keeping himself occupied outside of NMA. Between the first two NMA albums, he and John Medeski mutually discovered pedal steel guitar prodigy Robert Randolph. Medeski, NMA, and Randolph joined to form The Word, an all instrumental gospel group that released an eponymous debut in 2001. Luther and Cody also joined up with Jojo Hermann for his solo debut – 2001’s Smiling Assassin, and played on the follow-up albums Defector (2002) and Just Ain’t Right (2004). Tours with both The Word and Hermann occupied Luther’s time when NMA was off the road.
By 2002, Duwayne Burnside had begun touring with NMA and eventually joined the group. Now a quartet, the band returned to the studio for 2003’s Polaris, an exploratory, ambitious, self-produced offering that saw the band moving beyond the Hill Country tradition and into new territory. On the heels of Polaris, the band dipped into its archives and released Tate County Hill Country Blues, an album recorded prior to Shorty which alternately featured both Chew and Taylor on bass.
Even with the new ground covered on Polaris, the band didn’t forget its roots. The death of Turner in early 2003 reminded Luther of the preciousness of his home’s music and was the impetus behind a renewed focus on the Hill Country. After releasing another EP, Instores & Outtakes, in early 2004, NMA brought the Hill Country tradition to Bonnaroo. The band called its performance the Hill Country Revue and was joined on stage by Jim Dickinson, Garry Burnside, Cody Burnside, RL Boyce, Chris Robinson, Jojo Hermann, the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, and the honorary master of ceremonies, RL Burnside. A recording of the performance was released in late 2004.
The Hill Country Revue show would mark one of Duwayne’s last appearances as a regular member of NMA, as he would soon leave for a solo career. In 2005, he released a solo album, Under Pressure, to which Luther, Cody, and Chris all contributed. As Luther often has been quoted though, “Once an Allstar, always an Allstar”, and Duwayne still guests with the band when schedules permit.
A trio once again, NMA returned to the studio to record Electric Blue Watermelon – an album that both celebrated the Hill Country tradition and lamented its demise – Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint burning down, the deaths of Turner and his daughter Berniece, as well as that of former Jim Dickinson band mate Lee Baker. Just days before the album’s September 2005 release, RL Burnside passed away as well. Electric Blue Watermelon brought the band their third Grammy nomination.
Meanwhile, Luther remained in demand as a sideman. Aside from his innumerable sit ins with other bands as NMA toured the country, Luther and Cody joined up with John Hiatt for his 2005 album Master of Disaster. Tours with Hiatt followed, with NMA serving as both the opening act and Hiatt’s backing band. 2006 saw the US release of The Man Who Lives for Love, an album recorded by Jon Spencer and NMA some years before that had previously only been released in Japan. A tour with Spencer followed the album’s stateside release. Luther also expanded into film, as NMA contributed to the soundtrack and voiced characters for the 2006 animated film, The Barnyard. Luther also contributed to the score and helped teach Samuel L. Jackson to play guitar for 2007’s Black Snake Moan.
In early 2007, Luther was featured by Rolling Stone as one of the Top 20 “new guitar gods”. Luther and Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes formed a new side project, dubbed The Circle Sound; they played two NYC gigs in early 2007. Later that year, NMA announced they were forming their own record label, Songs of the South Records. The label released NMA’s first full length DVD, Keep on Marchin, a live concert performance from November 2005. An acoustic NMA album, Mississippi Folk Music, Volume 1, followed later in the year. The label has several new releases lined up for the near future, including future Mississippi Folk Music volumes, a 10 year retrospective live album and documentary film, and NMA’s next studio album – slated for 2008 release. NMA will serve as the house band for the Solid Blues tour in late 2007, backing legends such as Charlie Musselwhite and Mavis Staples. Luther will also appear on the Black Crowes’ forthcoming studio album, slated for release in early 2008.