The first version of the North Mississippi Allstars was formed around 1980. They wouldn't have the Allstars name for another 15 years, but it was about 20 years ago when 9-year-old Luther Dickinson, owner of a shiny new electric guitar, recruited his 5-year-old brother, Cody, to play drums with him. They banged around together through childhood, playing in punk bands in the suburbs around Memphis. Luther was in high school and listening to the records their father, Memphis producer Jim Dickinson, made with bands like Big Star and the Replacements.
But things changed in the late ’80s, after the family moved away from Memphis to Hernando, a small town in rural Mississippi. The boys, growing up around Memphis in a musical family, had always been aware of the blues. But it was outside of Hernando, in a night club called the Juke Joint (then owned by the since-deceased bluesman Junior Kimbrough) that they encountered the blues firsthand.
"I grew up on Hendrix, and my favorite band when I was 12 was Black Flag," Luther says with a sort of stoner drawl, his cell phone connection crackling as the band cruises along the interstate in upper Pennsylvania on their way to a show in Erie. "Then we moved into the hill country, where Fred McDowell and R.L. Burnside and Otha Turner were from, and I realized that we were living right in the middle of this."
Those hill country bluesmen have just been "discovered" by the rest of the world in the last few years. Burnside has recorded several albums for Fat Possum Records and toured with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and even released a disc of remixed songs with hip-hop beats and studio sampling. The Dickinson brothers have played a part in the revival of hill country blues, partly through their own music, but also by recording Turner (whose Luther Dickinson-produced album, Everybody Hollerin' Goat, was named one of the 10 essential blues records of the ’90s by Rolling Stone) and some of the other locals who influenced them—or learned along with them. "We recorded R.L.'s sons, Garry and Cedric, with Junior Kimbrough's sons," Luther says. "We did it in one day, in a barn, and man, they tore the paint off the walls. They're the baddest band in the hills."
Luther began playing guitar with Turner, now 92 and a master of the singular fife-and-drum music of the hill country, while he was in his late teens. Under Turner's tutelage, Luther learned to strip away everything that wasn't necessary until he had just the right feel for the hill country blues. Cody, too, learned a bit about the upbeat shuffle of the hill country with the older bluesmen. Soon, the brothers' band became the North Mississippi Allstars.
"We started the Allstars, and we were fascinated by this music," Luther says. "We were playing three or four hours a show, and we started stretching out and improvising, and all these influences started coming out...R.L. and those guys would hang out with us and tour with us. It was really a fun period of time when this band started out."
What the Allstars play isn't quite blues. For all the blues education Luther and Cody had at the Juke Joint, they were also steeped in teenage punk and the roots-rock they heard in their father's studio. What they've created is an amped-up, foot-stomping update of rural Mississippi acoustic blues, electrified cover versions of songs by McDowell, Burnside, Kimbrough, and Walter "Furry" Lewis drawn out into extended, often trance-inducing, booty-shaking rock jams. It's a ragged, weird sound, and in concert the trio—the Dickinson brothers and bassist Chris Chew—seems on the verge of spinning out of control. Luther's sparse, stinging slide guitar and his rhythmic, chant-like vocals capture the spirit, if not the exact shape, of the early blues he had absorbed under Turner's wing.
That's the sound they harnessed (with studio help from Turner, Garry and Cedric Burnside, and other local players) on last year's Shake Hands with Shorty, the Allstars' debut album on Tone-Cool Records. It's a primitive, stripped-down rock blues disc, somewhere between the blooze stomp of Cream and the radical post-blues deconstruction of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. There are moments of down-and-dirty blues grit, like on McDowell's "Shake ’Em on Down" or Burnside's "Skinny Woman." But there are also pretty, delicate passages that resemble the jazz-rock-blues-country amalgam of Eat a Peach-era Allman Brothers more than Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters.
Luther Dickinson is aware of the limitations of a couple of skinny suburban white kids trying to play the blues. And his recognition of what he and the Allstars are really doing helps give them the spark that separates the band from bland white-boy blooze bands who try to play like B.B. King.
"We're a rock ’n’ roll band. That's the way I feel about it," Luther says. "We're sometimes billed as a blues band, but we're really just rock ’n’ roll...That's what happens when crazy white kids are playing [the blues]."