North Mississippi Allstars and Black Crowes guitarist Luther Dickinson discusses writing and recording the newly-released Keys to the Kingdom, his newfound volume knob tricks, the gear he uses with both groups, and how Ry Cooder helped him break through as a songwriter.
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
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.
Your guitar tone on this record goes from super-fuzzed out rhythm to very smooth and overdriven. What guitars did you use?
It was mostly a Gibson ES-335 that Chris Robinson gave me. I also used my old Epiphone Casino that my dad gave me when I was a kid. That was my first serious guitar. I have a great old Harmony Soverington with a DeArmond pickup. For the funkier sounds, I would use that guitar. The Harmony made it on a lot of the acoustic rhythm tracks. I also had a custom-made Baxendale. He is a guitar maker out of Athens, Georgia. He makes a lot of stuff for the Drive-By Truckers. Baxendale is amazing. He makes these acoustic guitars that just speak out. A lot of the slide on the record is actually a Supro lap steel.
Do you bring the old Epis and Harmony out on the road?
I quit playing the cool, old Harmonys, Teiscos, and Silvertones out on the road in the late ’90s because they just fell apart. It was such a shame because the upkeep was just too much. Between our family and Kevin, we have amassed a lot of old gear. Some of it is real old and funky. The Casino I mentioned also can't put up with the volume. The atmosphere of the volume just makes it go crazy. I have a Gibson ES-175 that I would love to use as well, but I just keep that in the studio. Since then, I got a Hofner thinline, and it sounds great. Live, I usually use the Hofner and the 335.
How does your rig for an Allstars gig differ from when you play with the Black Crowes?
With the Crowes I have to use more song-specific gear. I try to not be to crazy about it, but sometimes you have to get that Strat sound or you have to use a wah-wah pedal. I play a lot of SGs and the 335. That is pretty much what I gravitate towards. I found you could make an SG sound any way you want with the pickup switch in the middle position. The nature of the SG is more light and springy than a Les Paul. I really fell in love with the SG in the last few years. I bought a ’71 SG with P-90s and used it for some slide guitar on the record.
Did you have a “go-to” amp for the sessions?
The amp is usually a Fender Concert. That’s my favorite, a little brown Fender Concert. There is just something about the Concert. I like Supers too, but the Concerts just add a little a little more definition and give me my perfect sound in the studio. I also have a Marshall Bluesbreaker. But live, I have been using Fuchs amps. I got turned on to those by Jimmy Herring when I was out with the Crowes. They sound so great, plus they’re powerful and reliable.
With such powerful amps, do you use a boost pedal?
Jimmy [Herring] and Derek [Trucks] have shamed me into not relying on distortion or boost pedals. It really is as simple as turning the amp up and working the volume knob on you guitar. Sometimes you have to work with the pots, like take the caps off or change the resistors. Some guitars have volume pots that don't react like you want them to so you just tweak them out enough so you have a clean response. That simple mod is so worth it.
What does end up on your pedalboard?
Analog Man makes some great pedals. When I do have to boost, like say when I am using a Strat or something with a lower output, I find those pedals work great. Humbuckers are great for cranking up the amp and working the knobs, but I find the Strats really love having a little boost. I also really like the King of Tone pedal. Marc Ford turned me onto the Sun Face, which is this disgusting fuzz. It has a clean boost and a dirty boost that is very transparent and durable. Alvin "Youngblood" Hart makes the Blood Drives, which have the germanium and silicone fuzz sound. I don't use those too much live, mostly in the studio for color.
With the Allstars being usually a duo or trio, are there some pedals you use to fill things out?
Yeah, with the Allstars I like to have some delay. I am just about to get one of the Fuchs delay pedals, which my tech says looks amazing. I have been using a newer Boss Delay pedal. As long as you can tap the tempo and it doesn't sound too digital, I’m cool. Also, I have been using the Octron Octave pedal, it just has three knobs, Octave Down, Direct, and Octave Up, and it is just so vulgar. There really are no polite words to describe how the pedal sounds. I love that thing. It's gross.
Dickinson and his Gibson SG at an NMA gig in Birmingham, Alabama on December 28, 2010. Dickinson says, "I found you could make an SG sound any way you want with the pickup switch in the middle position." Photo by Christina Daley.
I keep it pretty simple. I have some small custom-built loop boxes. I have two loops, the first one is just the King of Tone and a wah and I have another because sometimes with the Crowes I need a phaser or whatnot. If I have to use effects I can go there, but I try not to. But even with the Crowes just cranking up the amp and working the volume knob is just so satisfying when it's there.
It took me a while to figure it out, but sometimes you end up not turning the volume on the guitar all the way up. Have you ever noticed when you are playing your guitar and aren't plugged in it responds one way but as soon as you plug it in it feels like something in the chain is fighting you? The guitar isn't responding the same way. I have always come across that. I finally realized that if you don't turn it up all the way the instrument retains some of that acoustic response.
Back when I was a kid, we used to play with a friend of mine named Shawn Lane who is just an amazing Memphis virtuoso. He never turned his guitar up all the way, and I knew that but was never hip enough to try and do it. When I was a kid, I had a jazz teacher and he was the same way. In the back of my mind that always hung around. Man, I am 38 and still learning.
I will tell you a secret about Derek [Trucks] that freaked me out. I looked at his amp and the treble is jacked so far up. I said, "What are you doing, man?" He is turning his tone knob on his guitar down some of the time. I said "Whoa, that is insane!" I have yet to try that.
How was it working with Ry Cooder?
He is a master. Ry and my dad were old friends and started working together in the '70s. So Ry was around along with Jim Keltner and that was the band, the three of them. Those were the cats and both of those guys were huge influences. They were so cool and nice.
So you know, my father passed and that song that Ry plays on, "Ain't No Grave," came to me in such a rush. I just woke up one morning and wrote it. Then that night after a show, I just grabbed my guitar and the music just came to me in one complete thought. That happened to me a lot on this record. The songs really just shot out. On "Aint No Grave," I couldn't breakthrough just being a songwriter. I could play the song, play the melody, sing it and I tried overdubbing some stuff but nothing was really transcending it. I needed a fresh interpretation and someone to take it to another place. I called Ry and he said "Of course I will play on your record," so I sent the track to his engineer who told me that Ry knocked it out on the first take. We downloaded his track as we were mixing the record and rearranged the song a little after seeing what his interpretation of it was. Ry was perfect, it was exactly what we needed, a master to just play the shit out of it.
Luther Dickinson's Gear Box
Guitars (almost all with modded pots):
’80s Gibson ES-335
’72 Harmony Sovereign with a DeArmond pickup
Baxendale Darth Vader
’57 Supro lap steel
’59 Gibson ES-175
’71 SG with P-90s
’90s Gibson Les Paul with three humbuckers
Fender Concert (Vintage head with different chassis)
’80s Marshall Bluesbreaker
Fuchs 50-watt Tripledrive Supreme Combo
Fuchs 150-watt Tripledrive Supreme Head
Analog Man Sun Face Fuzz
Analog Man King of Tone
Alvin Youngblood Heart Blood Drive
Boss DD-7 Delay
Dunlop 95Q Crybaby Wah
Dunlop Volume Pedal
DR Roundwound 10s and 11s depending on the guitar