By Adam Joseph
Since 1997, the North Mississippi Allstars have toured perpetually; they hit the asphalt hard, only taking time off to make new records. This past year felt much different without those overnight bus rides on infinite stretches of country roads leading to cities where thousands of fans had already gathered to party, awaiting the group’s arrival. But North Mississippi Allstars co-founder Luther Dickinson says it wasn’t necessarily a bad year for the band, except for the whole pandemic thing.
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” he says of the time away from the road. “We spent the time writing and recording new music, and it felt great.”
After 25 years of constant touring, the band used the unscheduled time off to take a collective breath and rediscover the equilibrium that keeps them going.
“There is a balance between writing, recording, performance and rehearsing that is hard to maintain,” Dickinson says. “Coming from a folk music family and community of song collectors, we were raised to believe that some songs need to be kept alive and vibrant by any means necessary.”
NMA recently returned to what they love to do best, kicking off their first tour in over a year in Salt Lake City, Utah. Luther (guitar, vocals), his brother and band co-founder Cody Dickinson (drums, Wurlitzer organ, vocals) and the rest of the crew will continue west for a special gig on Sept. 3. The group will take the stage at 7pm for an audience of about 230 at Armitage Winery in Scotts Valley. The estate, once owned by Alfred Hitchcock, overlooks rows of vineyards and the Monterey Bay. A variety of Armitage wine will be poured, and food from local vendors will be available.
The outfit heads to Napa the day after, where they’ll play in front of tens of thousands at the sold-out BottleRock festival on a bill including Guns N’ Roses, Foo Fighters and Miley Cyrus. NMA may not consider themselves a “jam band” ala Phish or Widespread Panic, but they do blast off into tight, extended jam territory during live performances. They have also built a dedicated fanbase, some of whom have followed them from show to show for years.
Meanwhile, devoted followers and casual listeners can look forward to hearing an arsenal of new material from NMA’s eleventh LP, 2020’s Up and Rolling, which scored a 2021 Grammy nod—the band’s fourth nomination—for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
The title track is classic North Mississippi blues drenched in psychedelic nostalgia—tripping balls on muggy summertime days in the South.
“Grew up a Mississippi hippie tripping LSD / Smoking stems in season, drinking mushroom tea, we drinking mushroom tea, we’re drinking mushroom tea,” croons Luther in harmony with Shardé Thomas.
Short, nuanced jams—locked and loaded for live improvisation—are coated in Luther’s murky reverberated guitar riffs, emulating an audio equivalent to visual trails. Aside from the psilocybin-fueled “Up and Coming,” the rest of the record is inspired by photos shot by Texas photog Wyatt McSpadden, who documented the Dickinsons’ hometown, Hernando, Mississippi, in 1996. The album was recorded at Zebra Ranch Studios in Coldwater, Mississippi, founded by Luther’s and Cody’s father, the late Jim Dickinson. A renowned musician and producer, Jim worked with everyone from Big Star to the Stones.
“We strive to honor the debt we owe our elders and mentors and do what we can to encourage and pass on what we were taught,” Luther says. “Our father used to say, ‘If you learn something, it’s your responsibility to pass it on to at least 10 people.’”
Up and Coming delivers original takes on tunes by Pops Staples, Little Walter, Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside. The band also had one hell of a remarkable guest roster to help them bring it all together.
The legendary Mavis Staples ignites the group’s rendition of The Staples Singers’ gospel-meets-blues “What You Gonna Do?”
“What you gonna do / Death comes creepin’ in your room?” Staples wails.
In addition to providing her transcendent vocals, Staples gave the band important advice: “Play quiet enough to hear the vocals, even without a mic and keep the music intense,” recalls Luther, who refers to Staples as “an American treasure and my queen.”
On NMA’s cover of Little Walter’s “Mean Old World,” they enlisted guitar savant Duane Betts—son of former Allman Brothers slide guitar great Dickey—and singer-songwriter talent Jason Isbell, formerly of Drive-By Truckers. In the end, it doesn’t matter who NMA collaborate with; they have one another.
“We try to let each other be ourselves and do what we want,” Luther explains.
That approach has worked for more than two decades. And there are no signs of deterioration—the band already has another full-length record, Set Sail, scheduled for a January 2022 release.
The North Mississippi Allstars will perform on Friday, Sept. 3 at Armitage Winery, 705 Canham Road in Scotts Valley. For tickets and more information, visit tinywineryconcerts.com.