They keep the Mississippi sound alive

Boston Globe, November 12, 2005

When you name your band after the place you call home, you’re making a statement. When the place is Mississippi, you’re also staking out spiritual ground, raising ghosts. Field hands birthing the blues in the ruthless Delta heat. The young Elvis Presley, cutting his teeth in Tupelo. Emmett Till, the Philadelphia Three, and the countless “strange fruit” of the famous song, still hanging from the poplar trees, anonymous and unavenged.

But Mississippi is modern, too. It’s the state with the most black elected officials. Its music is that of Cassandra Wilson. It’s rapper David Banner and his gutter-yet-righteous dual personality. And it’s the North Mississippi Allstars, who raised the flag of Southern rock only to color it thick with gospel and blues, and who bring the festive, organic results to the Paradise tonight.

The Allstars’ Luther and Cody Dickinson and the brothers’ high school buddy Chris Chew grew up in the Hill Country, the high ground east and away from the sweltering Delta. The region, which includes the college town and literary mecca Oxford, has long been good to creative eccentrics. Their mentors included dad/producer Jim Dickinson, bluesman R.L. Burnside, and Otha Turner, the curator of the area’s distinct fife-and-drum sound who was prominently featured in last year’s PBS series on the blues.

“We were so fortunate,” Luther Dickinson says on the phone from his home in Hernando, Miss. “Our band was born out of an amazing time having parties around here. We learned from R.L. how to bring that jovial juke-joint atmosphere. The [Hill Country] vibe lives on in the rhythm.”

The Allstars are taking Southern rock to places old and new. On one level, what you see is what you get: two white guys and one black, with enough psychedelic jam-band appeal for devotees of the Allmans or Phish.

But there’s a lot more. On their latest album, “Electric Blue Watermelon,” the Allstars deliver a total expression of their region’s rambling, foot-stomping, moonshine-swilling sound, welcoming into the fold such varied guests as Lucinda Williams, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and a Memphis rapper called Al Kapone.

“We all feel like it’s our best record,” says Luther. “It’s a rock ‘n’ roll record about growing up in Mississippi. We deal with some sad issues, especially with the death of R.L. Burnside this year, and Otha Turner before that. It feels like the end of an era. But we do it in a celebratory way.”

After Turner died, Luther says, he went through a cache of the master’s old tapes and transcribed and arranged the lyrics. “Hurry Up Sunrise,” the single from the new album, is the fruit of this labor.

Another standout, “No Mo,” a rueful blues meditation on the history of Mississippi punctuated by a rap refrain, traces the long chain of exploitation back to the original rape of the land.

The Allstars wear lightly the burden of being a biracial band from the rural South, playing music that, one way or another, traces its components back to African-American sounds.

“Racially, growing up down here, all I know is the music has always brought people together,” Luther says. “In the Delta back in the day, those guys were traveling around by themselves. In the Hill Country there were whole musical families that played together.”

In Luther’s voice is a sincerity that attests to the fact that in at least one little corner of the Deep South, music, moonshine, and love of the soil have held together communities that might otherwise have been torn asunder. Though some of the standard-bearers have passed on, that Hill Country magic still endures.

“My dad says there’s a musical spirit that was once in Memphis that came here,” Luther says. He, too, has felt that way, ever since a small epiphany he once had in that city.

“I was hanging out in Memphis, and there were these two cats arguing over who played the trumpet riff in a particular song. And I said, [forget] this! I’m going back home there’s much more interesting stuff going on there.”