Luther Dickinson has been a part of so many bands over the years, it would only be logical to assume he’s promoting some new group on the Southern Soul Assembly tour. In reality, the guitarist with a gift for playing from the gut is out there swapping songs with three other typically electrified bluesmen — J.J. Grey, Marc Broussard and Anders Osborne.
As I saw for myself the night before our interview, most of the songs Dickinson plays at these unplugged shows come from his new solo album, Rock ‘n’ Roll Blues. The title fits the record just fine, by the way — but then, so would Hill Country Folk Punk. It’s a batch of songs marveling at the antics of his younger, wilder self from an older, wiser vantage point, with his scrappy spirit still very much intact.
CMT Edge: The in-the-round format of the Southern Soul Assembly tour presents you as a singer-songwriter. But for the past decade and a-half, you’ve been known for leading the North Mississippi Allstars. Have you always thought of yourself as a singer-songwriter who happens to be in a band?
Dickinson: Definitely a songwriter. A singer by default. That’s what punk rock music, that scene, gave me was the ability to go out in public and get experience just screaming into a microphone onstage as a teenager. I had no business doing it, though. … I only sang because nobody would sing the songs I wanted to play.
I was 15 when I joined my first outside band. … We were playing, and the lead singer was just standing there making up words. I was like, “Oh, wow. I can do that.” … That’s when I started writing tunes. I started writing a lot of tunes really fast.
So I’ve always been a songwriter. That was my gift — a natural creativity. And a desire to play guitar. It took me years to get anything going [on guitar]. I was not a natural. And I’m definitely not a natural singer, you know? But I love it. It’s a beautiful thing to do. It feels amazing. Jeez, being onstage with these guys, I have to be crafty and strategic almost — just to keep up.
In these rounds, you tell the stories behind your songs. Let me see if I have the one about “Yard Man” straight: You had a brief break in your touring schedule, during which you had to mow your seven acres, during which you wrote that song.
Yeah, yeah. That’s true. On the mower, scratchin’ it out on an old piece of mail I found in the yard. I grabbed a pen from my wife’s car.
You also mentioned that your dad never mowed grass. He just laid in it and smoked it. That fits with everything I’ve heard about the late, great Jim Dickinson. When you’re introducing people to his music, which of his albums do you tell them to start with?
Dixie Fried, of course. That’s the 1971 Atlantic record that’s really amazing. I really like the new, live one that just came out, called I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone. … It’s a great example of the rock ‘n’ roll that we [Luther, his brother Cody and their dad] made together, that he trained us to do. He was such a rockin’ piano player. Now that he’s gone, it’s just gone. Gone!
After your dad passed in 2009, rather than having a big funeral, you invited his friends to a recording session which yielded the rootsy, stripped-down album Onward and Upward. Since that time, you’ve gone on to do one unplugged, down-home project after another. What role did that experience play in sending you down that road?
After the gospel record, after dad passed, our daughter was born, and I was playing a lot of instrumental acoustic music. That led to [the 2012 solo album] Hambone’s Meditations. That was like lullabies. … Acoustic music is easy and honest. That’s what I like. I don’t enjoy the laboring over music in the studio.
The interesting thing was that with Rock ‘n’ Roll Blues, I tried recording these songs electrically. But it just didn’t work. As soon as I brought it down to the acoustic aesthetic, everything fell into place. Solo guitar or guitar-voice is my favorite. Like Robert Johnson or Bob Dylan or whoever. That’s my favorite art form in the world. It’s timeless, especially if it’s recorded timelessly.
Your new album offers some colorful accounts of your musical journey. Is this you letting us in on what it’s been like behind the scenes?
Totally. It’s all true. I hope it’s not too musician-centric. … It’s definitely the story of a musician on the road, trying to grow up and deal.
The one that really takes it to another place is “Mojo Mojo” because I was writing so metaphorically. It’s really written for all my friends that have been in the military. All the friends I grew up with that didn’t end up in the music business ended up in the military. They’ve been through terrible experiences in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan.
People say, “Oh, it must be so hard to be on the road, away from your family.” But, man, I’ve got it made. This is great. I miss my family, but I’m happy to have a job. My friends in the military, they’re the ones that have it rough.
The album opener “Vandalize” really brings alive the image of your dad taking you to a Black Flag in-store performance. You sing about getting excited enough to vandalize. So how’d you used to blow off steam?
We used to go around through the countryside and just demolish shit. … This is why I have to move my daughters out of rural Mississippi. In rural Mississippi, we were crazy. I liked a lot of punk rock, but Black Flag was always my favorite. And even the last time I sat down and put it on, I still ended up jumping around the room.
So the destructive impulse is gone, but the joy is still there.
The crazy thing about that song is I would never have put it first. This is not the first impression I want people to have. But my daughter, who’s 4, loved it so much. She’d make us play it over and over and over in the car. And she would thrash about in her car seat and laugh and laugh. It made me feel so good that that song gave her that kind of excitement. … I considered putting it first just so I wouldn’t have to search for track six.