Ramblin’ Man: Luther Dickinson Returns to His Hill Country Roots

Sound check is running long at Ruby Diamond Concert Hall in Tallahassee, Fla., where Luther Dickinson is playing alongside friends JJ Grey, Anders Osbourne and Marc Broussard.

Tonight is a one-off gig for their band, Southern Soul Assembly. In less than a week Luther will play a handful of solo dates, and in two weeks he’ll be back on stage with the North Mississippi Allstars, the gig that has made it all possible.

It’s the life of a traveling musician circa 2016—and despite his successes bringing the musical style pioneered by Hill Country forefathers R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Otha Turner to new audiences, being a bluesman still isn’t easy.

But like his many collaborators and heroes, Dickinson fills the gaps by staying busy. By the time he wraps preparations for the night’s gig, his tongue is as loose and inspired as the music he plays.

“Growing up in Mississippi was so awesome, and we’re so honored that the elders took us under their wings when we were young and showed us the way, taught us their music.”

Saying Dickinson grew up in a musical household is an understatement. His father, Jim Dickinson, played with Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan as a studio sideman. He famously played piano on The Rolling Stones ballad “Wild Horses,” and later became known as a producer for artists like Big Star and The Replacements.

The elder Dickinson moved his family from Memphis to the Hernando area when the boys were young. Luther grew up loving classic blues music, but felt it was the music of the past. It wasn’t until he heard the records released by Oxford’s Fat Possum label in the early ‘90s that he discovered the music of the Hill Country.

“That blew my mind and changed my life,” Dickinson said. “I did not expect to experience this in my own backyard.”

Soon, he found Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint in Chulahoma, where the hypnotic blues of the Hill Country he heard on those records came alive. He made frequent trips to Kimbrough’s Sunday afternoon jams, where he became familiar with R.L. Burnside and his longtime sideman Kenny Brown, and came to know fife-and-drum traditionalist Otha Turner, whom he had first met as a teenager at one of his father’s shows.

“Otha and I would spend evenings on his porch, playing Hill Country riffs on guitars, drinking moonshine and shooting the breeze.”

After Dickinson had soaked up enough of the music and surely a fair amount of the mash, Burnside brought him on tour as part of his backing band, alongside Brown and drummer Cedric Burnside—before the Allstars were discovered on Beale Street, and before he had traveled much at all.

“Kenny hired me to go on the road to play with R.L and Cedric, and they took me around to New York and taught me how to play. [After that], I got to know Cedric, Garry and DuWayne [Burnside, grandson and sons of R.L.].”

All of these connections coalesce on Dickinson’s latest solo collection, an ambitious double album of Americana music titled Blues & Ballads (A Folksinger’s Songbook), Vol. I & II, which honors those tangled roots of Hill Country blues without trampling them. While Dickinson has played and recorded many of the songs before in different ways, there’s a sense that this record is the purest expression of what inspired him back in the early ‘90s at Junior’s place.

To hear Dickinson describe it, the album itself went down much like one of those evenings long ago. Groups of friends—players like Jason Isbell, who lends his slide guitar to “Up Over Yonder,” plus JJ Grey, Mavis Staples and many of the friends who have appeared on albums or stages with the Allstars—would gather to collaborate casually, wherever they happened to be, from Chicago to Nashville to Zebra Ranch, the studio his father founded in Coldwater.

Songs like the once-electrified “Moonshine” took on another life in this setting, with a fingerpicked acoustic guitar backing Dickinson’s tribute to those hot nights at Junior’s. Shardé Thomas, Otha Turner’s granddaughter, duets with Dickinson on “Hurry Up Sunrise,” a song he worked into form from tapes of jams he recorded with Otha years ago.

Blues & Ballads celebrates the American oral tradition of blues and folk songs,” said Dickinson, “not only being passed down and evolving but being transcribed—the original recording technique—and entered into the discipline of written sheet music and songbooks.”

A soulful duet with Mavis Staples on “Ain’t No Grave,” a song Dickinson wrote after his father’s passing, inspired him to take the path toward creating what he describes as a “community project” with his friends.

“Where we grew up, the music has brought so many people together,” said Dickinson. “The repertoire is the most sacred thing. Those ancient songs—like everybody recording ‘Drop Down Mama’ and ‘Shake ‘Em On Down,’ in different ways, that’s what keeps the region’s music alive. That’s the legacy.”

Dickinson also keeps alive another part of the Hill Country’s musical legacy by bringing his friends along for the ride. Collaboration and community are parts of the experience, and the collectivist spirit that weaves together the Allstars’ extended family was part of Dickinson’s original vision—no doubt inspired by those nights passing the guitar around the porch. Even the credits on those early Allstars albums read like a who’s-who roster of Hill Country blues figures.

Those days began to change with the passing of Kimbrough in 1998, followed by Otha in 2003, R.L. in 2005 and his own father in 2009. Over time, Dickinson became one of the torchbearers tasked with keeping the traditions of the Hill Country alive. He gravitated back to the songs of his musical awakening with renewed zeal and issued Blues & Ballads as a tribute to his heroes and the idea of an American songbook.

“When the elders began passing on, I realized that my family, friends and heroes should be made into folk heroes and their vernacular and stories should be sung.”

Dickinson’s patron saints of the Hill Country, now canonized in wax on Blues & Ballads, surely wouldn’t mind that tribute.

Originally published in The ‘Sip, Spring 2014