The Common Good
July 2005

Blood, Soil and the Blues

by Danny Duncan Collum | July 2005

The particular truth of the North Mississippi Allstars.

There are two axioms in life of which I am sure.

There are two axioms in life of which I am sure. One is derived from the gospel of John and the other from the late member of Congress Thomas "Tip" O’Neill. They are as follows: Truth is incarnate. And all politics are local. Applied to the arts, these lead to a corollary. Art that aspires to be universal must be supremely specific, detailed, and rooted in a particular place and time.

And that brings me to the art that speaks the universe from the particular red dirt of the North Mississippi hills. I’m not talking about Faulkner (though I could be). I’m talking about the North Mississippi Allstars, the center of a blues-rock cult that started down here in the late 1990s and is, like kudzu, slowly headed your way.

Kudzu, for my more provincial and ill-informed readers, is the Japanese vine that was imported to the Southern hill country for erosion control and proceeded to take over everything in its path - trees, abandoned houses, and, legend has it, slow-moving cows. It actually can grow up to a foot per day. It is a wild, hardy, hot-weather plant, and, as such, it has become an emblem of the Southern hills.

If you’ve never seen kudzu, but you still want to feel the particular truth of this particular place and learn what it can teach you, you can always read Faulkner. But you can also purchase the North Mississippi Allstars 2004 live album, North Mississippi Hill Country Revue.

The North Mississippi Allstars are a pair of white brothers, guitarist Luther and drummer Cody Dickinson, and bass player Chris Chew, their African-American high school buddy. The Dickinson boys are the sons of Memphis producer, session musician, and sometimes-recording artist Jim Dickinson. The elder Dickinson played piano with the Rolling Stones, produced punk-rock legends The Replacements, and, early in his career, helped spearhead a Memphis country blues revival that led to the late-life recording careers of such artists as Furry Lewis and Fred McDowell.

SOMETIME BACK IN the 1980s, when his boys were very young, Dickinson left Memphis city life for the North Mississippi countryside. There, Cody and Luther grew up surrounded by their parents’ musical legacy and attended predominantly black public schools. Otha Turner, the fife-and-drum bandleader (and subject of the opening episode of the PBS series The Blues), was a neighbor and family friend. The children of Turner, and of guitarist R. L. Burnside, were classmates and contemporaries.

So it was that, after passing through teenage punk and hip-hop bands, they formed the Allstars and began fashioning a thoroughly contemporary sound from the indigenous materials of Mississippi hill country culture. You can hear the result on their very first recording, Shake Hands With Shorty, which, in its very first moments, combines hip-hop sampling and traditional hill country fife and drum, which some blues scholars maintain is the truest surviving cultural element passed on from West Africa to the United States.

On subsequent recordings, the Dickinsons and Chew were joined by Duwayne Burnside (R.L.’s son). He gave the band a twin-guitar attack that could only be compared to those patron saints of Southern rock, the Allman Brothers Band. Burnside left the band rather than tour Europe, but he is still a frequent guest artist and collaborator.

Hill Country Revue, recorded at last year’s Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, is both a summary of the band’s work so far and the best introduction to it. As Jim Dickinson states in the liner notes, it includes three generations of Dickinsons, Burnsides, and Turners. "Two races..." he writes, "met in brotherhood to rob the train." The music includes fife and drum, Cody Dickinson’s extended washboard solo, a guest spot by vocalist Chris Robinson (late of The Black Crowes), and rap from Cody Burnside (R.L.’s grandson).

Through it all, the common thread is the ancient and blessed backbeat, the timeless cry of the bottleneck guitar, and R.L. Burnside’s frequently voiced benediction, "Well, well, well...."

It’s music that does what the blues have always done. It looks the pain of living in the face and meets it with a party. That’s a stance toward life that is very much rooted in the tragedy of Southern history. But it is a philosophy in sound that will work for anyone.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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