Luther Dickinson — Interview
Given life in the do-it-yourself Memphis music scene, the North Mississippi Allstars have been DIY’ing their way through a 25-year career. Their latest album, Set Sail, will dock itself to fan speakers this Friday, courtesy of New West Records.
I recently sat down with guitarist and vocalist Luther Dickinson to discuss avoiding creative ditches, comparing music to food, and memorable shoulder slaps.
AH: You have been surrounded by music your entire life. Are there still firsts for you out there to accomplish, whether it is in the studio, on the road, or even in your own head as a songwriter?
LD: My new fascination is film score and I would love to do as much as possible. I am finishing my first—a documentary called Onward Christian Soldier about Eric Rudolph—and hope to do more in the future. Creating music for film suits my creative process. Film score is a whole new musical world and I hope to explore further.
AH: The new album Set Sail is due January 28. With so many records under your belt, how do you view new material on the eve of letting it set sail into the world? Do you attach expectations, or do you have to step away emotionally/mentally after your part in the process is done?
LD: The recorded versions of songs are now out there to do what they will. Hopefully they keep someone company along the way. Maybe a song will pacify someone, inspire or encourage someone. This is what we call “baby making music…” (Laughter)
We always reinvent and reinterpret songs on stage. The songs have adventures ahead on the road. Like any folk music, melodies and lyrics will be the foundation but we will burn the songs down and rebuild them in the future.
AH: The North Mississippi Allstars have been making records for over two decades now. No one knows the music better than you. Regardless of who was lending their talents to the project at any given time, where do you hear the biggest evolution of sound from where you were in 2000 to where you are now in 2022?
LD: A downfall of having grown up screaming into microphones at all-age punk rock shows is leaving behind a trail of music with questionable singing that I can’t listen to. The Memphis all age DIY taught me how to book my own shows, write songs, design flyers and art work, sell our own cassettes and get it done. I am a total product of that scene. The all-age scene allowed me to sing songs in public when I had no business doing so. My singing was so awful. Only in the last few years have I learned to place my voice in a comfortable range. At this point in time, I don’t want to hear anyone raising their voice in my direction, be it musical or in comedy.
AH: You have always had your hands in various projects, including your own solo career. How do you creatively compartmentalize? When you’re writing, do you write for a particular project or do the songs dictate where they end up?
LD: Steering music only lands me in the ditch. I write instrumental music all the time and go through periods of working on lyrics. The lyrics on Set Sail have been floating around my song books for years at various stages of completion, waiting for their time to come. I never force a song into the NMA repertoire. If a new song is met with resistance I’ll put it aside for another time and place. Cody (Dickinson), Jesse (Williams) and Lamar (Williams, Jr.) were digging the new songs, so we kept pushing.
AH: If someone sat down and listened to Set Sail front to back, what would they learn about where your head is at today as a musician and creative?
LD: Set Sail is full of clues I left for my children about my current belief system, either overt lyrics or just by setting an example. In case they are ever curious or need to be reminded of what I think it’s all about, some of the new songs will lay it out for them. My daughters sing with us on the lines “in music and love I believe” and “see you on the other side of the end, our friendship will transcend.”
My favorite type of music is made together with musicians young and old, boys and girls all singing and playing together.
AH: What are you most proud of with the album and why?
LD: Cody’s drumming is so beautiful and we were so like-minded in how to approach this music. He mixed the record tirelessly and I love what he did. My favorite sonic aesthetic is the sound of doing it yourself and trying to make it sound as good as possible. We are the happiest when we do it all ourselves, for better or worse. I’m extremely proud of Cody’s and my collaboration.
AH: Are you someone who has to step away from music from time to time in order to refill the creative tank or is your mind always writing even when you don’t want it to be?
LD: Music and family are 100% my life and that’s enough for me. I wish there was more time in the day for more music and more family. The morning is most creative for me, when the mind is fresh and uncluttered—be it writing, recording, or picking up a guitar for a morning meditation. A night’s sleep, a cup of coffee and a moment’s peace are all I need to feel creatively-refreshed. Art is a craft and you have to show up for work, stay in the habit of being productive. I love working through moments of uninspired warming up and then breaking through to the real selfless creation.
Music is like food and variety is important. Working on multiple projects at once is how I roll. I love bouncing between different projects. I try not to rush projects and don’t mind music or ideas sitting on the back burner. Time gives art a depth that can’t be faked. Fresh perspectives can’t be forced either.
AH: You have accomplished a lot in your career. As you look back, what are the highlights that you still can’t help but smile over when you think about them?
LD: Memories of conversations with R.L. Burnside and Othar Turner have been treasures and have inspired many songs. Little moments like Mavis Staples slapping my shoulder, or Phil Lesh telling me I “have the proper type of mind” with a twinkle in his eye, stay with me. It’s an honor to be part of the tradition and lineage of American Freedom Rockers.
AH: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
LD: Whoa, trippy question. All I know is that I have a couple long term bigger scale projects that I need time to complete and I hope I get them finished sooner than later. I’ve been working on a musical combining Mississippi and New Orleans music and culture since I was a teenager. I would love to see that project come to life in the next 10 years. Whatever music and family has in store, I’m all in.
AH: What would the Luther who first picked up a guitar think of his career if he had an opportunity to see into the future? Would it have blown his mind to see just how big his future catalog had become?
LD: I wasn’t a natural musician as a kid and continue practicing and developing today. But I knew that I wanted to be a guitar player. Simply knowing what I wanted to do was a great advantage in my youth. Trying to focus my energy and visualization on a future of my choice was a powerful force.
For more information on the North Mississippi Allstars, including upcoming tour dates, visit www.nmallstars.com.
Check out our earlier song premiere with Luther Dickinson in the New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers, here: Song Premiere: New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers “Greens and Ham”
An interview with Cody Dickinson is here: Key to the Highway: Cody Dickinson