At first glance, it doesn’t seem like Colorado has anything in common with the Deep South. Yet despite geographical differences, the love of music crosses all boundaries.
Mixing traditional with contemporary, the North Mississippi Allstars not only have a rich musical pedigree to draw upon, but also the wherewithal to know that hard work is necessary for survival.
Drawing on acoustic blues from the 1920s and electric Chicago blues from the 1950s, singer/guitarist Luther Dickinson was in the right place at the right time to hone a fresh take on these wailing sounds and grooving beats. In the early 1990s, a new breed of electric country blues emerged from the haven of northern Mississippi. The sounds of artists such as R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough hooked Luther, his brother Cody and bassist Chris Chew on a sound that has been their staple since their 2000 album debut Shake Hands With Shorty.
“I’m so happy and proud to be an ambassador,” Luther says. “Not only is it the Mississippi culture that I grew up in, it’s my dad’s culture, vintage rock ’n’ roll that he grew up in.”
Despite growing up in the music world (father Jim Dickinson was a longtime Memphis musician and producer before passing away in 2009), Luther doesn’t take his life for granted. Working side by side with his brother Cody, making music for a living has become a blessing.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to be a working musician. You have to respect that,” Luther says.
It might not be 9 to 5, but life on the road can be a grind. A grind the North Mississippi Allstars welcome.
“I’m not just clocking in and going to work and doing my task for the day. It’s a funny job because you have to create art and every night you have to inspire yourself and inspire your audience and have a moving experience or people won’ experience or people won’ t come back next time,” Luther says.
Yet people keep lining up to hear the stripped-down NMA sound, enjoying what at times is a cross between backwater porch picking and gritty rock ’n’ roll. The juxtaposition is not lost on Dickinson, who makes no bones about the band’s style.
“I don’t try and make it have some old timey authentic sound. I’m just saying that by the time I’m done with it, its rock ’n’ roll. That’s just the way it is, and I’m cool with that,” Luther says.
Although the band members all have side projects and collaborative work with friends, the sound the Allstars brings across has a less-is-more vibe.
“We play primitive roots rock ’n’ roll, and the more people you have up there, the easier it is to have it be diluted. Lots of bands can double up on instruments and take turns rocking the house, nothing wrong with that. But when the layers get stripped away to the basics, sometimes two or three performers can bring just as rich an experience,” Luther says. “You become more unique the less people you have.”
Coloradans will be lucky to catch the NMA this time around. Other than a benefit date in Ozark, Ark., the performances Sept. 14-16 in Boulder, Denver and Aspen mark the only shows west of the river that the band shares a name with. Fresh off the heels of a performance at the Ride Rock and Roll Festival in Telluride last month, it seems as though the Allstars have found a home away from home.
“Colorado seems really unique. There’s cities like New Orleans, San Francisco, Austin, that are just great music towns, but Colorado seems like a great music state,” Luther says. “Ever since ’98, ’99, when we first started coming to Colorado, we’ve met so many good friends and audiences never let you down. It’s so much fun.”
Unfortunately, bassist Chris Chew won’t be on this leg of the tour. Still recovering from a diabetic coma earlier this year, Chew is relinquishing his Allstar status to friend of the band, Lightnin’ Malcolm.
“Chris Chew is our main man, you know. But we’re excited about the lineup we have,” Luther says.
Regardless of the lineup, the North Mississippi Allstars make it known that they love what they do.
“When I get out there I’m so grateful and I appreciate every single audience member and to get out there and to play a concert… it’s my favorite thing, it’s what I always wanted to do. Doing the show is the payoff. I really get off on it. It doesn’t matter where I am, or when it is. It’s very fulfilling to me,” Luther says.
Fulfilling audiences with the blues seems to make Colorado fans of the genre anything but blue. Despite connotations otherwise, the NMA make the blues a colorful expression of good times all around.
“The blues is really about having fun,” Luther says. “Like R.L. Burnside said, ‘Blues ain’t nothin but dance music.’”