Guitarist, composer, and American music treasure Luther Dickinson was one of Epiphone's biggest supporters when the House of Stathopoulo re-emerged in the 1990s. At that time, Dickinson was best known for his work in the North Mississippi All Stars, the duo and sometimes trio he formed with his brother Cody in 1996. Today, the North Mississippi All Stars are veterans themselves and widely admired not only for their own music but as a vital link to Mississippi legends R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Otha Turner, who were the Dickinson's music teachers along with their father, famed producer and pianist Jim Dickinson. Luther himself is a hero to many of today's most gifted guitarists, appreciated for his grace and power on slide and rhythm, his sublime songwriting, and most of his all, his deep knowledge and respect for the music of his hometown, Memphis.
"My whole life my dad helped teach me how to craft songs. I'd bring in these rough songs and we'd demo them up and record them," said Dickinson. "He would always go through them and make sure the syllable count added up and the rhymes were traditional. He taught me the importance of getting the most out of every word, making every word as strong as it could be. Now that he's gone, I still work on songs using what he taught me. We're still working together, because he taught me how to do it. The collaboration lives on." Epiphone caught up with Luther on a rare day off as he prepared for a new tour with the 'All-Stars along with finishing numerous recording projects. Be sure to check out his latest album, Blues & Ballads: A Folksinger's Songbook: Volume I & II (lutherdickinson.com).
When did you get your Epiphone Casino—which is one of your main stage guitars?
When I was around 14. I got my first guitar when I was 5 for Christmas—like a 3/4 size Strat, and then I got an Electra Westone, which is the pointy metal guitar. When I was 13 or 14, the Casino was my first grown-up guitar. My Dad took me to the music shop and we picked it out. And the Epiphone Casino helped shape my guitar aesthetic. I still love P-90s and I still love semi-hollow and fully hollow guitars.
It has an unusual finish...
I think that it's a 1980s reissue. We bought it used. My Dad also had an older ES-175 but that was his guitar. And I use flat wounds on these. My Dad turned me on to flats. I think the string gauge you use—just like the pick you use and the amp you use—all adds to the tone. And the way the guitar responds dictates what I play.
Growing up with Dad, he encouraged me to play with heavier strings to have more tone. So I did that for a lot of years. But Warren Haynes turned me on to light gauge strings. He is a great teacher in a casual way, always telling stories, sharing knowledge, and keeping cool tunes playing. Warren, like all great teachers, will tell you a seemingly random story but you later realize the moral of the story. We were on the road with Gov't Mule in '98 and opening up for them in Texas roadhouses in Lubbock, Abilene... it was so much fun. And I was playing this Casino with 13s. And he told me this story of how Derek Trucks had Bukka White's old National and how the strings were so light. He said the unwound G-string sings like a bird and its perfect for slide. And I went: 'Oh cool man cool.' And then months later, I was like: "Holy shit! It was a parable. He was trying to tell me to try lighter strings!" And I did! And still to this day, if it's an open-string slide number, I'll have an unwound .24 (gauge) G-string because it truly does slide better.
And then another friend of mine, Duwayne Burnside, said my playing should sound effortless. So I gravitate back towards 9s or 10s. But if I were going to play the music like we used to play with our Dad, who was a piano player, if we were going to play some old time traditional rock and roll or some ragtime changes, I'll play some heavier strings for the resistance. Because my personal taste is pre-Slinky, you know what I mean? Hubert (Sumlin) and Buddy (Guy) invented light gauge slinky-style blues guitar but Willie Johnson and Pat Hare played the heavy gauge string stuff that sends shivers up my spine.
When you think about the artists who you have learned from, do you find much difference between what you heard on their records and what you heard live? Recordings can sometimes play tricks on your perception.
Of course! My favorite records are studio recordings of a live performance. I love super Hi-Fi recordings of a real moment. All of my favorite records seem to have this in common regardless of genre. That's a funny thing because I grew up the son of a record producer—and a heavy handed record producer at that—who was part of the generation that embraced technology the whole way. He retired from engineering after 8-track: that's as far as he went. But as a producer, he embraced technology way too long and way too far, you know what I mean? Because it made his job easier. He liked it. And he wasn't the only one--many from that generation were like that. He and I would argue so much about how I didn't want to hear a certain echo on the snare. And my voice—I wanted to be defiantly out of tune as opposed to audibly auto-tuned.
Did your Dad produce your early records?
We would leap frog. He would do one and then we would do one. He would pull me forward and I would pull back. We found our parameters. His trip was he wanted to capture the magical first impression, first take, or run through. He loved the sound of people learning a song. But then he would polish the sound in the mix and produce it as aggressively as possible in post.
At Ardent (Studios in Memphis), say in the early 80s, the Fairchild* was a doorstop, you know what I mean? So once he got back into producing with the True Believers from Austin and Green On Red--the first bands he produced when he got back into it--and then The Replacements, he wanted to plug in every new piece of gear and dust off the vintage stuff. They were pioneers of using modern equipment and techniques for making raw primitive music. And back then, it was the day of the big budget. So he would hook up everything and use it and just produce and mix as aggressively as possible.
*Ed: The large Fairchild tube limiter weighs nearly 70lbs and includes over 20 tubes and over a dozen transformers. It was designed in the early 1950s by engineer Rein Narma (purportedly in Les Paul's living room) to aid in the cutting of lacquer discs, the first step in the vinyl manufacturing process. The goal of the Fairchild design was to allow lacquer-cutting engineers maximum control over a record's tone and gain (volume), though many engineers found the Fairchild's smooth sound was just as useful during sessions. Les Paul and legendary jazz engineer Rudy Van Gelder owned the first units. Several Fairchild limiters were also purchased by Capitol Records in Hollywood, where EMIs new "pop music" producer from London, George Martin, heard them in action at a Frank Sinatra session in the late 1950s during his visit to the Capitol studios to determine why U.S.-made pop records sounded superior to those made in the UK. (EMI distributed Capitol Records in the UK and Europe.)
Martin was so impressed with the sound of the Fairchild limiter that he purchased several for EMI's studios at Abbey Road in London. Martin and Beatles engineer Norman Smith first adapted the Fairchild to Beatles recordings in late 1964 using it to gently shape the sound of acoustic guitars, drums, and vocals during live sessions. The Fairchild would remain a ubiquitous presence on all Beatle sessions throughout the rest of their career. When 19-year old Geoff Emerick replaced Smith as The Beatles engineer in 1966, Emerick—under pressure from The Beatles to create new sounds—began using the Fairchild as a distortion device to radically alter the sound of anything that passed through it. Emerick's first use of the Fairchild in this manner was on John Lennon's "Tomorrow Never Knows," Emerick's first session with The Beatles. Emerick overloaded the sensitive controls to create Ringo's now-legendary drum sound. Today, original Fairchild mono and stereo limiters sell for over $100,000.
What kind of producer did you want to be?
There are documentary-style producers and that's what I wanted to be. And modern budgets demand a level of commitment. I like to invest in great audio for the record, so that means that we work in a good sounding recording environment, surrounded with professionals, playing raw and live and making it sound as exciting as possible. We record fast and loose and fun to stay inspired knowing that we will work cheaply in post production.
I'll tell you a game changer. So Dad, of course, being a session player as well as a producer, taught us to get band tracks and then overdub the vocals. But Buddy Miller, man, broke me of that. Buddy gave me game changing advice and said, "Look man, I just don't overdub. If you need banjo, call a banjo player. If you need voices, call the girls and wait for them. Just get everyone together and do it and record the moment."
I remember Tape Op did a session where they went to observe producer Phil Ramone (Bob Dylan's Blood On the Tracks, Frank Sinatra's "That's Life") and his whole trip was the whole band was secondary. He didn't even look at them. Just do your job. It was all about the vocalist and capturing a vocal performance. And from those two things I saw the light. If you're making modern pop or rock or rap or whatever—stuff I don't listen to—you can make band tracks. But you gotta get a live vocal. If you can get a singer who can commit to that, then 98% of the problems making records are done.
If someone hires me to produce a record, the budget is usually modest so you have to commit to strive to capture a live vocal. It's the situation where the songs are going to be ready enough to go. Of course there are different ways to go. Some artists will have sketches of songs and melodies without words. In this case, we record band tracks as the artist improvised lyrics while guiding us with a guide vocal. This can be a very inspired, creative way to record because you can catch the moment of creation when the ideas are being born.
Like the Keith Richards marinating method...
Right. My Dad said when the Rolling Stones recorded in Muscle Shoals—"Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses"—Keith would mumble and hum and grunt and groan and Mick would translate those guttural sounds and then they'd go off and fill in the blanks. But that's the thing—getting that emotion across.
Sometimes professional musicians who, like yourself, have many years of experience in the studio, find it hard to step away from the Hi-Fidelity environment of a recording studio, even if they grew up listening to recordings that were made in primitive studios. How do you listen to music today?
I love vinyl of course and listen to records at home. My favorite way to learn a song is still picking up that stylus--old school--with my head in the speakers. I feel a connection to songs I learn off of vinyl as opposed to music I learn from my phone. I bought a cassette Walkman on tour and have been enjoying listening to cassettes again. It's an 1/8" world and the cassette is portable analog satisfaction. It's been a blast pulling out my old tapes and revisiting them. The old tapes still give me the same old feeling they put off when I was a youngster.
When I've watched you perform live, it seems like you're going straight into your amp. But over the course of an evening, your tone will change from song to song. How did you learn to do that without relying on pedals?
Derek Trucks finally weaned me off the pedals. Many pedals are just emulating amps that are turned up. But I'm lucky to work in environments where I can turn up any amp, be it a Princeton or a 150-watt. So I turn up the amp and work the guitar's volume to blend in. There are so many variations within a guitar's volume and tone knobs to work with. It's fun to let the amp open up and breathe--working the volume of the guitar. But then again, sometimes I'll reach over and crank an amp for a solo if need be! I play light, loose, and loud. Since I play with a light touch, I need headroom in the amp to maneuver. I know guys who love to hear speaker distortion. But that's not me. I need clean headroom and definition with sustain and hopefully natural feedback. I like to have one clean amp and one fuzzy amp if it's a trio. If it's a bigger band, I'll just use one amp. But when it comes down to it, you have to forget it all, lose yourself, and just play. My philosophy is just plug in with whatever you have and get the best sound you can and just forget about it. It's gonna sound different at the gig then it did at sound check. It's gonna sound different every day, every night. You have to just say @#$# it and play. Because it will never be perfect.
(Epiphone Advertisement - John Hyatt Tour, Ryman Auditorium - Nashville, TN.- July 30, 2005.)
And the musicians you learned from probably had the same philosophy...
Growing up in Mississippi, it was amazing in the mid 90s because Fat Possum records had turned me onto R.L. Burnside and his family and Junior Kimbrough. And then I found Otha Turner and they were my family. They embraced me. Playing on Otha's front porch I learned so many things. When my friend and I would play on his porch, Otha would run us off if he didn't enjoy it. And this was a 90-year old man! But if he was enjoying it he'd start singing, and that was the pay off. 'Cause no one sang blues like Otha. And so he taught me to evoke the feeling. All you have is an acoustic guitar but you're trying to conjure up a feeling strong enough to make this 90-year old man start singing or jump up and start dancing.
Another great lesson: my friend R.L. would keep eighth notes with his foot. I thought that was crazy until I realized any 8th note could be the downbeat at any given time. And it's as simple as that. R.L. took me on the road in '97. He could sing the saddest lyric with a smile on his face. And he didn't care what guitar he was playing or where he was but he could sit there and make it feel like he was playing a house party. He asked us to play a house party once—it was his wife's birthday party. And we'd set up in the dirt by the carport and he'd sit in front of us and request his songs and just laugh at us (laughs). It was so good. Because of that I think, my time is completely fluid. I speed up, slow down. I like the human element of tempo. And I think it's compositional too. The chorus is faster and the bridge slows down. And the outro speeds up. It's rock n roll.