Grind up some North Mississippi hill country roots. Toss in some blues, a hunk of fuzzy, acid-drenched Hendrix and a fistful of gritty rock. Stir well, stand back and start shakin'. That's the recipe for a Hernando shooter, a volatile cocktail whomped up by the North Mississippi Allstars every time they step on a stage on in a studio.
Hernando is the name of Allstars guitarist Luther and his drummer brother Cody Dickinson's Mississippi hometown and the title of their latest record. It's somewhat of a departure from their previous works, in sound and construction.
The Mississippi high ground grows a sound that doesn't thrive in the muddy delta bottomland. It's more of a plaintive, droning sound usually associated with Appalachian music, as opposed to the bigfoot, bottom-heavy imprint of the low country sounds. The Dickinson brothers have explored that sound in previous outings through neighbors Junior Kimbrough and Otha Turner. But this time out, there's more of a rocky bottom showing through and a greater sense of fun in evidence.
Luther kicks off the disc with "Shake," a ZZ Top--flavored ode to wigglin'. "I hadn't written in about a year," says Luther, calling in from his 103-year-old farmhouse in Senatobia, Miss. "Lots of music, but no songs with lyrics." A visit from a neighbor, former Squirrel Nut Zipper guitarist and Knockdown Society founder Jimbo Mathus, gave Luther a creative boost. "I played that one and he was like, 'Man, I always wanted to write something about shake what your mamma gave you,' so we started putting that together and before long, we started writing verses and it just jumpstarted me and I was back in the zone, man."
Luther visits a zone a bit farther back in time with the Hendrix-flavored "Keep the Devil Down," based on a riff contributed by bassist Chris Chew. "A lot of it is just riffs, man," says Luther, commenting on the band's creative process in a slow, cool drawl. "We just come up with them at sound check and we just record them on our phone usually and whenever I get a moment, I put 'em together."
But for this project, daddy Jim, who played with the Stones, as well as with Clapton and Dr. John, and produced albums for Ry Cooder and the Replacements, was once again acting as producer and insisted that the band take a different approach to recording. The boys were told to bring in demos of every song they wanted to record. Luther had his own ideas about what direction he wanted to go in, but in the end, daddy Jim called the tunes. "He kept me on track, [saying,] 'Naw, we're gonna make a blues rock record," Luther says. But he quickly saw the benefits of doing it his father's way. "It helped work up our parts and get the arrangements tight in the part. Usually we'd be going in to make a record and it's like OK, here's a new song, and man, that used to piss Cody off bad," Luther says, laughing.
Just because it's worked out ahead of time doesn't mean the Allstars will lay down a stale, carbon copy of an arrangement. Dad is a fan of a live studio sound, and often wants to do it in one take. "Yeah," says Luther, "The first good take. Sometimes we may do it again try to get it better."
"Soldier" features a jam at the end that's a first take. "That was the first time we got set up and the first song we recorded. We went into that jam and just destroyed it man, it was just so much fun," Luther says. "We captured some real improvisation. Then we went and played the song one more time, but we kept that first jam, cause man, that was exciting."
Although jamming does take place occasionally, the Allstars never get locked in one groove. Hernando rocks, slithers and slides in the Mississippi mud and even manages to make fun of it's muddy disheveled self on "Love to Be A Hippy." "Man, it's so funny for Chris to sing that," Luther says, alluding to the fact Chew, a devout Baptist, almost quit the band several times because some of his church-going brethren considered what he was doing with the Allstars blasphemy.
The bassist has since adjusted to his dual lives in the secular and sacred world. Luther says they mean no harm with their tongue-in-cheek poke at the hippies carrying on in the hills with their hippie pills. "No, man, we love the hippies," says Luther, letting loose with a long, stoned laugh. "I'm always a little mis-shaven myself; a little bit on the long-haired side."
But there's nothing hippie or laid back about Luther's work ethic. In addition to touring and recording with the Allstars, he's recorded this year with John Hiatt and The Black Crowes. He had toured with Hiatt for two years after making the Master of Disaster record with him. He made the connection with Hiatt through daddy Jim who played with Hiatt and Ry Cooder in the '80s. "He's another cat too who's after that live performance," Luther says of Hiatt. "He's going after live vocals, that's ballsy."
He'll be playing lead guitar on tour with the Crowes this year as well. "I've known the brothers for awhile, we've done some shows together, they called and I was honored," Luther says.
And for the first time in their career, the Allstars are in total control of their catalogue with their own label, Song of the South. "It's cool, man, cause we got a great fan base that we're so appreciative of and that's who we're catering to," Luther says. "Just keeping it real."
The North Mississippi Allstars play the Neighborhood Theatre on Jan. 24 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17 in advance, $20 on the day of the show.