Luther Dickinson Won’t Get the Blues Without a Grammy

Luther Dickinson’s instrumental album Hambone’s Meditations backs five buoyant originals with two truly innovative interpretations of gospel music. Peaks effortlessly enliven the 40-year-old’s singular acoustic guitar mastery, as on “Breckenridge Blues.”

“I don’t even have an amplifier in my house,” Dickinson says. “My house is filled with acoustic instruments. Plugging in is like going to work for me, and I love it and I save it for that experience. I’ve always got some acoustic instrument in some strange tuning playing some weird music. I love the acoustic guitar.”

The founding North Mississippi All-Stars member talked to CMT Edge about his Grammy-nominated collection, the North Mississippi hill country blues and his natural gravitation toward the acoustic guitar.

CMT Edge: Congratulations on the Grammy nomination.

Dickinson: God, man, that’s insane! It’s a solo instrumental guitar independent release. Thank you!

So much has changed in the industry. Is it still a big deal to be nominated?

Yes. It’s crazy. Gosh, this is my fifth nomination, and every time, for different reasons, it just bowls you over. It’s like, man, this is amazing! It’s so nice to get that nod from your community.

Do you have a chance to win?

No, not a chance in hell, man! [Fellow folk category nominees Carolina] Chocolate Drops beat me two years ago, and then there’s Ry Cooder. He’s the king. My father [multi-instrumentalist and producer Jim Dickinson] worked with Ry Cooder my whole life. But I’m going! I’m gonna party my ass off! It’s gonna be fun, too. Jack White’s nominated. The Black Keys are nominated. It’s a good year for guitar.

Let’s talk about Hambone’s. Did you write the songs specifically for this album?

They were. My father was a piano player and guitar player and producer, and I grew up around a lot of roots music in my family and community. He always tried to turn me onto John Fahey, who was the pioneer instrumental acoustic guitar guy, but in my youth I was never ready. I could never get to Fahey. “Yeah, that’s cool, but I’m gonna listen to Mississippi John Hurt or Doc Watson.”

Then there was a guitar player in my generation named Jack Rose, who sadly just passed away before he turned 40. He was a Fahey-influenced instrumental guitarist guy. Jack Rose inspired me. Then I went back to Fahey and was like, “Man, I see it. It’s so beautiful and amazing.” Fahey is like being hit by a tornado. For me as a guitar player, I love to play roots music and write [roots] songs and sing, but it never dawned on me that I could make an entire album of instrumental acoustic guitar music.

So it felt pretty natural to write these?

Yeah, when I was writing these songs, I was like, “Man, this is it. I have found it. This is like breathing. I could do this forever.” It was the whole winter of ’09. My father had passed away that summer, and my daughter, our first child, had just been born that fall. There was a lot going on in my life, and there’s something about autumn that always makes me want to hold an acoustic guitar. Those songs just came pouring out of me.

Have you written more acoustic instrumentals since ’09?

The funny thing is, since then, I’ve written a lot of things, but I haven’t written anything in that genre. It didn’t prove to be as easy as breathing! (laughs)

Tell the story behind writing “Breckenridge Blues.”

A friend of mine, a guitar maker, let me borrow this amazing guitar. I recorded the album on that guitar. I was on the road in Colorado, and I don’t ski or mess with any sort of altitude activities. I was just sitting there, and I wrote that song in Breckenridge. Later in the tour, I recorded that on a laptop in a dressing room. I thought, “Well, I’ll just do a demo,” but then the recording turned out so cool, I put it on the record. Everything else was recorded at our place in Mississippi, but that song was recorded with no intention of being released.

You’ve said you’re not interested in being a blues purist. Explain.

Well, the thing of it is, I am a blues purist. The blues music I like to listen to is the old, raw [stuff] from the ’20s or ’30s or ’40s or ’50s. I grew up until the mid ’90s thinking the blues I liked was a thing of the past. Even the recording quality of the stuff I like, the sonic atmosphere on those early records, appealed to me aesthetically and sonically and spiritually. I like being in that world.

Then in the ’90s, there’s what they call the North Mississippi hill country blues right in my backyard where I grew up. It was blowing up! Otha Turner played a homemade bamboo fife and drum music, and Junior Kimbrough and his whole family of musicians had a juke joint. R.L. Burnside and his family were touring the world and making records and getting on TV.

All of a sudden, there was electrified multi-generational country blues in my backyard. That blew my mind! That’s what inspired me to start my brother’s and my band, the North Mississippi All-Stars. We were surrounded by this tradition of new blues music. It was the nastiest blues I’d ever heard. Even now with our band, I just claim to play Mississippi rock ‘n’ roll. I know I’m not a blues musician. I’m a roots musician from Mississippi.

The song “Blind Lemon and the Hook Man” suggests Blind Lemon Jefferson has influenced you.

Oh, yeah. Well, Blind Lemon, he’s one of the heaviest. He and Charlie Patton, they’re the demigods of the scene. Actually, that line comes from our father. He wrote a book that he nearly finished right before he passed called The Search for Blind Lemon. Two of the titles are from his book — “Blind Lemon and the Hookman” and “Death Comes on the Wings of a Crepe.”

For me, influence-wise, there’s a lot of Ry Cooder in my guitar playing and Doc Watson and there’s a whole lot of Mississippi John Hurt. Fred McDowell. Those are some of my main cats. Also, my father’s style of piano playing was a huge influence on my musical output.

Where did you discover the songs for the gospel medleys?

Oh, man, our grandmother, my father’s mother, was a piano player, and I grew up listening to her play hymns in church. Those are abstract memories of those old-time hymns. Music has always been my doorway into the spiritual world. I love gospel music. I’m not gonna sit here and talk religion or politics or sports with you, but I love some gospel music.

Are you familiar with Kelly Joe Phelps?

Man, I’ve heard of him. Should I check him out?

Definitely. He started interpreting gospel blues on slide and then got into singer-songwriter stuff and now he’s doing original gospel on the slide.

Dude, I have to remember that. He sounds like a soul brother! It’s funny, the North Mississippi All-Stars are like my electric guitar output, and this side is acoustic, but I’ve been through that phenomenon with both. You start out [interpreting], but then you have to ease your own material into it for multiple reasons. It’s hard to transition.

Writing timeless roots music is a very daunting feat, and interpreting correctly as an artist has been a tricky thing for me. That’s what I love about acoustic. Every side project I’ve done with the acoustic is just so honest. I think it’s naturally appealing. It breaks down all the barriers. There are no preconceived agendas. Solo guitar with voice like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson and early Bob Dylan — that’s my favorite art form.

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