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The name for the North Mississippi Allstars’ new album was inspired by the late father of Luther and Cody Dickinson. “World boogie is coming,” were his final words before passing in 2009. Photo by Michael Weintrob
Are you still using Fuchs amps?
Well, I turned over the 150-watt Fuchs I used when I played with the Black Crowes because I hadn’t played it in so long, even though it’s an amazing piece of ammunition with unreal headroom. But I just got Fuchs’ Full House 50-watt 1x12 combo, and I’m very happy with it. It’s a 2-channel amp, though I mainly use the clean channel cranked up. I also used lots of blackface Fender Princeton on the record, plus an old brownface Fender Concert.
Why do you stick with the clean channel?
Because for me, all that distortion pedals and extra preamp gain stages in amps do is try to duplicate what an amp does when it’s cranked up and on fire. Since I play in environments where I’m totally free to turn my amp up, I do. Duane Allman, Derek Trucks, or Jimmy Herring would all tell you the same thing: Just turn that son of a bitch up! Let it talk. Let it sing.
So what’s the gnarly distortion sound on “Rollin’ and Tumblin’?”
The low riff is just the coffee-can diddly bow with two bass strings, played through the Foxrox octave.
What about all the wild sounds on the middle section?
That’s not me—it’s my brother playing electric washboard through his effect pedals.
It really takes you on a Hendrix-style journey.
Electric Ladyland was such a big influence on both of us. When I was about 16 we took a lot of drugs and got way into the box set versions of that and Allman Brothers at Fillmore East. Those are our two favorite records.
How about all the freaky sounds on “Snake Drive?”
Kenny Brown plays the choppy power chord riff. Duwayne Burnside plays the Hendrixian phase guitar. I’m playing the crazy slide/toggle-switch solo.
You mean, turning off one pickup and using the pickup toggle as an on/off switch?
Exactly. I learned that trick from Brian Gregory of the Cramps, who used it on “TV Set” long before Tom Morello made the technique famous. I’ve loved the Cramps since I was a little kid. They’re yet another link to the Memphis punk-blues scenario. They came to Sam Phillips’ studio and worked with Alex Chilton on their first record, Gravest Hits. My dad was there and recorded a song with them. They were a big influence on me growing up.
I love the intro to your version of Junior Kimbrough’s “Meet Me in the City,” where you play in swing feel against a perfectly straight groove.
We recorded a swinging version of the song back in ’03, but then we started playing it with a straight, almost Michael Jackson feel, which was enough of a change for us to want to record it again. But that little guitar hook of Junior’s has to swing. I’m still experimenting with the idea of swinging on top of a straight beat. But really, that’s just rock and roll. It’s like Chuck Berry playing in straight time while Johnnie Johnson plays piano with a swing feel, or Little Richard pounding straight eighth-notes on piano against a swinging drummer.
So why did most rock guitar players forget how to do that?
I don’t know! I was just lucky enough to grow up with a roots rock master who was really aware of things like that. But I’m not naturally much of a swing player. Swinging is tough, man.
How did you get that amazing staccato groove on “Goin’ to Brownsville?” Is that just damping?
Yes—I’m choking it with my left hand. But I mute a lot with my right hand too, especially with my thumb. Muting is so important in slide playing. I like playing with a pick sometimes, but if you’re going to get into slide, you need to put that pick down! I mute the high strings with my middle and ring finger and mute the low strings with my thumb, which usually hangs down across the strings.
How do you approach iconic blues standards like “Brownsville?”
We just grew up with it. That song was one of the staples of Mud Boy and the Neutrons. They were friends with Sleepy John Estes and Furry Lewis. Furry claimed to have written it, but Sleepy John Estes was the one who actually lived in Brownsville. Therein lies some of the cool lyrical thievery-slash-oral tradition of blues lyrics. Sleepy John Estes wrote it. Furry Lewis made it his own. Our parents played it, and we learned it from them, so it’s just a natural thing to us. You know, I always used to sidestep the question of whether or not the Allstars are a blues band. The idea just gave me the creeps! We are a rock and roll band, because when white kids and blues get mixed up, the world boogie turns into rock and roll. But our approach is very interpretive, and it can be wildly different from night to night. That’s what we learned from Mud Boy: to play roots music the same way a jazz player would interpret a standard. We just take these melodies and rhythms and have our way with them. Nothing is sacred!