Interview: Luther Dickinson Talks Songbooks, Hymns and the Power of Music
Few modern artists have as storied a past as that of Luther Dickinson. From being born into a musical family -- his father Jim was a world-renowned producer and musician, and he and his brother Cody regularly collaborate together with the North Mississippi Allstars -- to playing with a myriad of talented acts, Dickinson has never been one to rest on his laurels.
Case in point: Earlier this year, Dickinson released the massive musical project, Blues & Ballads (A Folksinger's Songbook) Vol. I & II, a double-LP of acoustically re-imagined songs from his long career. Though the newly recorded 21 tracks -- featuring the likes of Mavis Staples, Jason Isbell, et al. -- might lead you to think this album was a long time in the making, Dickinson says that it was actually a pretty quick process.
"It was really casual and easy and fun to make," he told The Boot backstage at the Bell House in Brooklyn, N.Y., before a recent show. "It was the most casual and effortless record we've ever made, mostly because two-thirds of the songs I've been playing for a while, so they were easy.
"That being said, I did have to rearrange a lot of them for the acoustic setting, or allow the ensemble that I was recording with to see where they wanted the song to go," he adds. "That's the fun thing, getting people together to see where the chemistry can take a song."
Though Dickinson admits it was an "effortless" record to make, he also assures fans of its sincerity: "The more casual and the more honest of recordings that I make for my solo endeavors," he says, "it seems like the more people relate to them ... which is a good lesson to learn."
In addition to that lesson of casual and honest recordings, Dickinson has also learned a thing or two from the artists he collaborates with, such as Buddy Miller.
"He started me on this path," Dickinson explains. "We did an Outlaw Radio show at his house, and he told me, 'My thing is, I just don't overdub. If you need a banjo, call the banjo guy. If you need singers, wait for the girls to come in. Get everybody together to do it.' Just by telling me that, he was producing -- as my dad would say -- in absentia."
For Dickinson, one of the most important things he learned from Miller was the importance of live vocals.
"That's the key for me," he admits, "and if you can commit to getting a good vocal performance as opposed to a good drum track and building from there, that's a whole other type of making records. You know, it really doesn't make sense for roots music, but we didn't grow up working that way with our dad. We grew up getting band tracks. All the records we've been making the last few years, just that one aesthetic, that one principle of striving for live vocals, it's helped everybody."
Another friend and artist who played a major role in Blues & Ballads is Jim Lauderdale. Not only did Lauderdale co-write the track "And It Hurts," he was an inspiration to actually do the record.
"He kept me going. I've made three records with him now, and when he's in the process, he's so driven," Dickinson says of Lauderdale. "He'll book a session with no songs and just a couple of lyrical ideas and make it happen."
It's not only the work ethic of Lauderdale that Dickinson finds inspirational, it's his whole approach to the music business.
"He's self-financing his projects and selling 'em out of the trunk of his car," Dickinson explains. "So many of my friends are doing that -- it's almost like the early, pre-'50s era of rock 'n' roll. With Blues & Ballads, it's the same thing: I started working with Mavis [Staples] and kept recording and self-financing it. I was under contract with New West Records, but they hadn't approved the idea yet. I finished the whole thing and brought it to them with my fingers crossed. Jim encouraged me to push through and have the faith to see it through."
One of the most exciting parts about Dickinson's new album is what accompanies the music. He set out to make a record that would have a lasting impact, not just through the songs but through the way fans consume the songs. So, he created a classic songbook for the vinyl edition, with sheet music for each track (the CD version includes handwritten lyrics that give a glimpse into the songbook process).
"I've wanted to do the songbook forever, so I made this LP to facilitate it," he says. "The recordings of some of those older songs, they were what they were, but I wanted them to stand alone in a humble acoustic setting, and I also wanted the songbook as validation to re-record them acoustically -- that's how I wrote them in the first place."
He hopes that the concept of the songbook is picked up by more artists: "I wish all my friends would make one," Lauderdale notes. "I've encouraged Jimbo Mathus to do it -- we should all bring it back. It's a small investment, but man, I wish I had a Jimbo Mathus songbook. He's an amazing songwriter. JJ Grey, Jason Isbell, they all should do it."
Though he's currently in the process of writing and recording a new Allstars record with his brother, Dickinson hopes that he can find time to expand his songbook.
"I want it to grow," he reveals. "I'd like to have some of the Rock 'n Roll Blues songs added, and even some of the Hambone's Meditations songs. That's the dream, to add to the songbook in volumes three and four. I want enough to make a proper book."
If you're open to it, music transcends time and space and life and death and allows you to stay close.
The Blues & Ballad songbook reads like a hymnal, which makes sense considering that Dickinson partly learned to read music by standing in church, pouring through the hymnals.
"I'm self-taught -- well, let's say 'untrained,'" he says with a laugh. "Growing up, studying blues and rock 'n' roll, you don't learn a lot of traditional melody and harmony, but through the hymnals and hymns -- and children's songs I learned from my grandmother -- you learn a lot of interesting melody shapes that you don't find in Howlin' Wolf or Charley Patton."
Though the music of the church played a significant role in his upbringing, Dickinson isn't one to talk much about religion. "I'm not a big talker unless it's about music," he clarifies. "I don't really participate in politics or religion much. I definitely have ideas and beliefs, but I'm not the type of person to bring them up. I just don't get into talking about that kind of stuff. I like gospel music, though, because it allows me to simply believe."
Though it may not be the same genre as gospel, for most fans, it's easy to relate to Dickinson's passion for music.
"I will tell you what I believe," he continues. "If you're open to it, music transcends time and space and life and death and allows you to stay close. It conjures. I'm just with my people when I play. It's not because we're all in heaven -- it's because of the music. What I play is home-based, it keeps us together."
When Dickinson talks about "his people," he's referencing his dad and his friends.
"I like singing about my people. That was a folk epiphany for me," he recalls. "R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, my father, Lee Baker -- once my musical heroes and the cultural chiefs of my tribe started dying, I started writing songs about them. The songs can make them into folk legends -- I like celebrating them."
That type of attitude and virtue is strewn throughout Blues & Ballads. Dickinson has created a musical experience that is a collector's dream, all the while serving as a true testament to his commitment to and love for his craft. And lucky for his fans -- as evidenced in his life and career -- it doesn't look like Dickinson has any plans to slow down anytime soon.
"I can't stop," he admits. "I just can't, man."
Blues & Ballads (A Folksinger's Songbook) Vol. I & II is available now via New West Records. Grab the album -- and check out Dickinson's full tour itinerary -- at his official website.
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