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. Luther is best known for his work in the North Mississippi All Stars which he formed with his brother Cody in 1996. The All Stars are 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 Brother's music teachers along with their father, famed producer and pianist Jim Dickinson. Today, the North Mississippi All Stars are heroes to a new generation of Americana artists and Luther himself considered one of his generation'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."
We spoke with Luther on a rare day off as he prepared for the release of Up and Rolling, the new album by the North Mississippi All Stars which comes on the heels of Solstice, his collaborative album with the Sisters of the Strawberry Moon featuring longtime friends Amy Lavere, Shardé Thomas, Birds of Chicago, and Amy Helm. We’ve also included our 2018 interview with Luther which includes a great conversation about his Epiphone Casino and lessons he learned from father Jim. (lutherdickinson.com).
Thanks for speaking with Epiphone, Luther. It's graet to see you again.
How did Solstice come about?
This music is an artifact of our friendship. And the music is a byproduct of the hang. I’ve been old friends with Amy Helm. And I’ve been wanting to work with Amy for any excuse. We did a Shardé (Thomas) show with Amy Helm for one of our projects and we were playing in Chicago with the Birds of Chicago (J.T. Nero and Allison Russell). As soon I heard Allison play the clarinet I was like, “Oh my gosh!” And she also played the gut string banjo really dark and funky. Even that night, we got Sharde’s fife and clarinet together and I thought: this is good--now I've got another cast of characters. So we put together our party. Everybody brought three songs and we met in Mississippi and we just took turns backing each other up.
One of my favorite songs on the record is Amy’s “Sing to Me.”
Recording that was a wild moment. Amy came to the studio first so Amy and myself were tracking this song--just acoustic guitar, drums, and Amy’s voice. We did a run-through and a first take and we were just about ready to cut what would be the master take and J.T. and Allie walked in. Oh hey! Amy Helm, this is J.T. and Allison. So nice to introduce you. Then Allison sits down at Amy’s feet and looks at her and Amy takes a deep breath and she goes for it. Not only did we make new friends but we captured the moment of actually introducing each other. And this was a beautiful song-- Amy just rose to the occasion.
The whole record was like that. Lillie Mae plays a little fiddle of course. The Como Mamas sang acapella by themselves. We tried to back them up but it was just so much better by themselves. They just fill the room with their North Mississippi gospel soul. It was a super fun record. I made it for my family. I’ve got two daughters now, nine and five. I’ve been making music for them to listen to. It’s changed the whole trajectory of my career. Especially my solo career.
With your daughters in mind, how do you listen to music now? Do you find that you’re sensitive to sounds or arrangements that you might not have paid attention to before?
My first solo record was very acoustic but it was the story of my life growing up. And there were a lot of curse words in it. My oldest daughter, she’d sing along in the car and bleep herself out. I never even considered that. So, I started making records for the girls because I’m on the road all the time. They listen to my music and sing along in the car. This was the inspiration for Strawberry Moon. And they sing along and love it. It worked out.
If you can maintain the perspective of listening to music as you did as a kid, that’s great. They say Rick Rubin is the master of that. He can still listen to his favorite music just as he did as a teenage kid with that same innocence. What I appreciate more and more when I go back and listen to Howling Wolf or Jimmy Reed or Jimi Hendrix recently is how every time you go back, you hear different things. I get off on that.
What were your first memories of hearing music as a kid--what appealed to you--sound, rhythm?
The way I heard music as a kid was very abstract. I didn’t pick out the bass and guitar at first as a very small kid. I remember music being more visceral and abstract. As time goes on, my listening changes. A big thing for me that you pointed out is that the music that we liked-- especially for me growing up--I wanted it to be cool. I wanted it to be tough. I didn’t want to hear any pretty singing. I could give many examples. Say the Woodstock movie. There wasn’t much else you could watch on PBS growing up. Some of that stuff I thought: “Eww (laughs)” or whatever. Pretty folk singing of any sort. I wanted my music to be tough and loud and rockin’ and jumpy. But as soon as my first daughter was born, I saw that she reacted to female vocalists--even just as an infant. And that changed the game right there. So I started collecting all the great female singers.
It’s funny. Right before my first daughter was born, my father passed away. And while he was sick we had a big tribute benefit show for him in Memphis. And all of these wonderful lady artists came out that he had worked with over the years. And that really knocked me over that he had worked with all of these wonderful strong women. And they all had so much to say. It really opened my mind to that. And that reflects in what I'm doing now. With Valerie June and Amy and Shardé we made The Wandering--another pot luck session. And that led to my Rock ‘N’ Roll Blues album. Shardé and Amy and I have made a lot of records together. We did Samantha Fish’s Belle of the West, too. Very sparse with a lot of voices. We made Amy’s Runaway Diary record together. My Blues & Ballads records together. Each time it was all about making lovely music that on one hand was for my family to listen to. But on the other hand, I like easy listening psychedelic beautiful acoustic music that you can listen to super late at night or early in the morning. My daughters have given me a whole new balance that I’ve never had before.
Are these pot luck or collaborative sessions less pressure since you don't have the responsibility of coming up with an entire album?
It really makes it easier and takes the pressure off. Just about any songwriter that has been in the game for a minute knows you always have a few (songs) around. I often ask artists: is there anything you want to re-record? Is there anything you weren’t satisfied with that we can reinterpret in an acoustic fashion? Everyone has those couple of songs that never fit in when you're making an album. You know how songs are. I think bringing two or three songs—a cover for instance--I think it makes it easy. It takes the pressure off.
With this album, we did the City Winery world tour and it was so fun. We played every City Winery and it was so beautiful. They cultivate such a beautiful audience for people and a great environment. You can actually play as quiet as you want to. Another thing the ladies have taught me is how to play quiet. Shardé and Amy insisted I play quieter. And I’ve brought that to the Mississippi All Stars and Cody (Dickinson) appreciates that. Because he’s been trying to do that but he doesn’t have that female persuasion. I’ve learned to be more dynamic which is great.
Tell me about the new North Mississippi All Stars album.
The 'All Stars record is coming out and I’ll be definitely be dedicating a year or two to that. It’s straight ahead modern Mississippi music. It’s called Up and Rolling and we recorded it at our place in Mississippi mainly. We swept out the old barn and cleaned up the listeria (laughs). It was really fun. It’s very straight forward. Cody is playing little keyboard, a little Wurlitzer. That’s definitely part of our sound. Cody is such a great multi-instrumentalist. He’s got a keyboard set over his floor tom so anytime he wants to he can reach over and play one-handed keyboard, or two-handed keyboard with just a bass drum.
And you recorded it at your family studio?
Our family’s studio is called the Zebra Ranch and we started working in there in 1995. We built it with my Dad. And it’s become one of those studios—to me—where it’s got that vibe where you fall right into the 'zone.' It’s like any classic well-loved studio. Like your grandmother’s kitchen or your grandfather’s workshop. It’s a place designed to do one thing so you go in there and do it. You’re free of distraction. The path is well trod. It all comes together. We caught some nice improvisational moments. Because that’s what we do. And it’s a challenge to do that in the studio and have it be worthwhile. It’s funny, sometimes you’re like: Oh well, maybe next time. Maybe next take. But a couple of times we were really flying. We don’t rehearse the songs. We make them up in the studio and interpret them. If we don’t get them that day we’ll come back another day. It’s not like “this is your part...here’s the arrangement.” We record long and loose. Dad used to say the “misery sticks to the tape” (laughs). So we try to record joyful. We try to keep it joyful.
Are you able to be that kind producer? For some reason, it’s difficult for musicians who love “live” sounding music to allow themselves that feeling in the studio.
What helps us is that Cody and I often record without bass. Working just the two of us --as brothers--we can get it done. Especially without that other harmony instrument, there’s no mistakes. But that said, on the new All Stars record, half of it was recorded as a trio with our bass player Carl Dufrene. And Carl, he’s been playing with us for going on two years now and he’s wonderful. He really helped bring that chemistry and helped bring that live thing.
You know, I’m really glad you mentioned producing and live sessions because on that subject I can really give props to Amy Lavere. When we were recording with Sisters of the Strawberry Moon, Amy Lavere had really done her homework. She had everything charted out and she was crushing it, even in the rundown. Just having Amy be locked in from the jump, we were able to capture first takes. Some of the record are rundowns. It’s insane. And the fact that Lavere was so on it made everything possible. Some of the vocal takes are just blood and guts. Practicality and pragmatism in a bass player is a good quality (laughs). Like (Muscle Shoals legend) David Hood. You gotta make that chart! On David Hood’s charts for example, you can see that within that structure lies all the freedom of the world. He’s free to play. There’s your road map. No one’s gonna get lost. That’s an inspiration for me. I like to dream big and then let reality help shape whatever the art ends up being.
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 five 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.
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.