Luther plays his Epiphone Casino at a February 27, 2010 North Mississippi Allstars gig in Falls Church, Virginia. Photo by Nick Fitanides.
A lot has changed for Luther Dickinson since the last time he went into the studio with the North Mississippi Allstars, the group he formed along with his brother, drummer Cody, and bassist Chris Chew. The Dickinsons lost their father, legendary keyboardist and record producer Jim Dickinson, and Luther became a father for the first time. On Keys to the Kingdom
, you can hear how the Dickinson brothers gather some of their friends and heroes to celebrate their musical mentor.
In North Mississipi, just over the border from Memphis, lives a certain kind of blues. A bit more sophisticated than the Delta style and more rustic than the Stax sound that was coming out of Memphis. The NMAS have lived in this middle ground and developed a sound out of it. I caught up with Luther while he was on tour opening for Robert Plant and the Band of Joy to discuss writing the material for the latest album, his newfound volume knob tricks and how Ry Cooder helped him break through as a songwriter.
How did the material for Keys to the Kingdom come together?
All of those tunes pretty much wrote themselves. They just stood up and started walking around. As far as influences go, there have been periods of time where I could say I have been listening to a lot of Big Star or The Replacements, and those things are always with me, especially those two bands since I grew up with them. Before I went in to record this album I had been studying a lot of gospel songs and gospel material, and even children's songs.
This album was recorded at your own Zebra Ranch studio. I would imagine by now, you really feel comfortable there.
We definitely feel at home there. We've recorded at other places in the past and it's possible—we can do it where we have to—but it’s real easy to walk into the Zebra Ranch and get to work. It’s out in the middle of the country, so there aren't any distractions. There is nothing to do but play.
A lot of your albums are self-produced. Are you a real hands-on type when it comes to recording?
Dickinson plays slide at a 2009 North Mississippi Allstars show in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Chandler Moulton
We have an engineer partner that we have been friends with since high school named Kevin Houston. Actually, we used to play in bands together but then he went on to become a great engineer. He has recorded almost all of our records and did a lot of work with our dad. We let him handle most of the work, but I just follow my ear and if something don't feel or sound right, then I look into it until I find the button that needs to be pushed. Usually, it’s turning something off and getting it out of the way. With most of our records we end up having some sort of parameters for how it should be sonically. Our last record, Hernando
, was more late ’60s or early ’70s rock, but this one in some cases was going for a much older ’50s sound.
When you listen to the album you really feel like you are in the room with the band and the amps are cranked. Did you track it live?
Yeah, Cody and I tracked live and cut the record as a duo and then overdubbed the bass and whatever second guitar parts we wanted put on. Even some of the vocals on the album were from the live takes. We didn't isolate much of anything. Actually, we used very few mics and sometimes the guitar would bleed into the vocal mic. Even if we overdubbed the guitar, we would record the vocal mic as it sat there so we would have the presence of that sonic real estate.
Was overdubbing the bass more of a logistical issue?
It was. We have done it that way before. Cody is so good and fast and we are pretty telepathic, so the recording went really quickly. We cut the whole record from top to bottom in 12 days. Cutting the songs as a duo just made it easier for us to get in there and knock it out.