With a little help from dead bluesmen

Thirty years ago, legendary Mississippi producer Jim Dickinson predicted the rise of his lineage with a shimmying statement:

“World boogie is coming!”

Today, Dickinson’s two sons, Luther (guitar, vocals) and Cody (drums, guitar, vocals), along with friend Chris Chew (bass), are redefining the parameters of the dance floor as the North Mississippi Allstars, a hill-country boogie-blues band making serious inroads on the jam-band circuit.

Fed on the wit of the late “Mississippi” Fred McDowell, the anti-showboat approach of Otha Turner and the balls-out caterwauling of R.L. Burnside, the Dickinson boys have revived the sound of Mississippi’s hill country for the less-cynical, post-X generation.

Their ascension began with Shake Hands With Shorty (Tone-Cool, 2000), an album full of covers of songs by the brothers’ Mississippi idols. A Grammy nomination followed, giving fangs to these 20-something music-biz newborns. They then proved they could write their own blues meltdowns with their sophomore release, 51 Phantom (Tone-Cool, 2001). Another Grammy nomination ensued.

Number three, Polaris (Tone-Cool, 2003), with R.L.’s son Duwayne Burnside on guitar, saw the boys injecting pop sensibilities into their blues diet. How else to explain the guest appearance by Oasis’ Noel Gallagher?

“I’m just writing songs for teenage girls,” Cody told An Honest Tune‘s Tom Speed. “I can’t help it.”

Now comes a historical compendium of the band, cleverly disguised as a live album. Out Tuesday on Ato Records, Hill Country Revue — recorded at the mighty Bonnaroo Festival a mere four months ago — will tell the world how these supposedly “timid” boys from Mississippi were transformed into rock stars.

The rundown of contributors reads like the guest list to a Dickinson-family BBQ. Each musician brought on stage that day owns at least a shade of responsibility for guiding the boys through their adolescent trials of dust, juke joints and homemade white lightning.

From the outset, a throne was placed in the middle of the stage for the grand monarch of raunchy blues, R.L. Burnside, who remained with the band for the whole show.

But not every influence clocks in at two generations back. Widespread Panic’s John “JoJo” Hermann appears early in the jam session with his old band Beanland, a group that reportedly made a deep impression on the budding Dickinsons.

“When you’re hearing the Allmans in the Allstars,” the official press release for Revue informs us, “it’s more directly Beanland.”

In addition, ex Black Crowes front man Chris Robinson vocalizes for “Boomer’s Story,” the title track from Ry Cooder’s third album, which was produced by none other than Jim Dickinson.

Of course, a family show wouldn’t be complete without the input of daddy Dickinson (the man who played piano on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and produced both Big Star’s final studio album and also Alex Chilton junkies The Replacements’ essential Pleased to Meet Me): The grand soothsayer shows his organ chops with the obscure J.B. Lenoir song “Down in Mississippi.”

The most touching family moment, though, comes when Otha Turner’s Rising Star Fife & Drum Band joins the other two-dozen musicians onstage. The shamanic Turner passed away last year at age 94, but his grandsons Andre, Rodney and Aubrey (plus “spiritual son” R.L. Boyce) carry on the band’s curious cross-cultural tradition

The fife-and-drum sound — a surprisingly intact blend comprising a short, shrill flute brought over by West African slaves and the colonial-America drumming style — was once a staple in Mississippi’s isolated hill country. At 92, Turner became Luther Dickinson’s mentor, teaching the boy slow-hand substance over fret-board flash.

“To learn from a first-generation bluesman is so cool,” Luther told Time magazine’s Eric Pooley. “If Howlin’ Wolf was still alive, Otha would be older than Wolf. Otha, he’s got these wild silver eyes. He’s like a spiritual guru. He lives in a time machine.”

Could be. One of the most telling pictures in Hill Country Revue‘s CD sleeve shows an empty throne facing out over the crowd. It’s R.L.’s seat — but the vacancy suggests that maybe Otha sat down for a spell, nodding at Jim Dickinson’s strange prophecy come true.

[Freelance music writer Hunter Pope is based in Asheville.]


The North Mississippi Allstars and the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band, with New Orleans’ Dirty Dozen Brass Band, play Thursday, Oct. 7, at The Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave; 225-5851). Tickets cost $17.

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