Published on June 17th, 2021 | by Nature Humphries0
North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic Artist Q&A: Luther Dickinson
The 2021 North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic is just around the corner. Mark your calendars for June 25–26, and get your camping gear ready for a hot weekend of music, family, and Mississippi-flavored shenanigans just a short drive north of Oxford in Waterford, Mississippi at the Betty Davis Ponderosa. Tickets are $25 per day, with a $15 camping fee and a $10 cooler fee, available at the gate the day of the Picnic (CASH ONLY; online sales ended June 15).
I gave North Mississippi Allstars‘ guitar hero Luther Dickinson a ring recently as he was driving to Atlanta. We chatted about the Picnic and what he’s been up to lately, and reminisced the Allstars’ early days.
I’m about to get on the road myself. I’m headed down to Vicksburg for a couple of days.
I love Vicksburg! It was the first place that championed us and encouraged us to play. All the other audiences we were playing were just, you know, hard audiences. They supported us enough, but when we would come down to Vicksburg in the early days it would be so exciting; it really elevated us.
Yeah! The first time I saw y’all play was at The Biscuit Company and it must have been like ’97 or ’96.
Whaat?! That’s exactly what I’m talking about, that is awesome.
What is it about the Picnic that makes it stand out from other festivals? Because it really is special.
Well, it’s like a family reunion. It’s the only time, for me, when I get to see the whole Hill Country community, you know? Because we’ve been on tour forever. But I always make it a point to come and be a part of the Picnic and recharge my batteries with that Hill Country funk. The music is really unique. Hill Country music has its own thing, and it’s widely influential. If you want the real deal [go to the Picnic] to see the musical family still carrying on, it’s such a beautiful community.
It’s got its own vibe, that’s for sure. I see you’re playing with Cedric and Sharde [this year]. What’s that set going to be like?
Ooh, that’s going to be fun! We’ll do some of the tunes that we all know together, and we’ll do some we don’t know together. We’ll take turns backing each other up. We’ll have double drums set up, and Sharde will play some fife as well. It’s gonna be fun.
Do you have any favorite Picnic memories that you can share?
Hmm … well there was one rainy year that some of the audience was just sliding and wallowing in the mud, you know, like real Missi-freakin’-hippies—Missihippies! And that was really wild. There was a great after party [one] year—Alvin Youngblood Hart played at Foxfire Ranch. I have to say my favorite memory is doing the guitar clinics. There were some years when we did the guitar clinics, and it’s really—it’s not easy—but it’s really fun. I learned a lot doing it. It’s amazing to have this huge group of musicians who know the Hill Country repertoire from all over the world; they come to Mississippi, and they can already play the North Mississippi music. It really makes me happy. Cause that’s what ties the Hill Country community together is the repertoire—the shared repertoire. Each musical family has its own style and each family member has their own style branched out within the families. But there are certain songs that everybody does from time to time, you know. That’s what ties the community together.
Speaking of which, I guess The Black Keys are getting a lot of attention for this new album they just put out.
That is fantastic. And that’s a great segue, cause that’s all about the repertoire. The songs have a life of their own. Songs are like kids—they run off and have lives of their own. And for those cats to expose their audience to the Hill Country repertoire is really exciting. Because those songs, they deserve to be in the American songbook. And not only that, they’re employing Eric Deaton and Kenny Brown and exposing the world to them once again. That’s fantastic man. It’s funny. Kenny hired me to go on the road with RL Burnside in 1997. And at that point, he was the young guy among the elders, and Cedric and I were like the really young dudes. You know, Kenny Brown grew up being the young guy. He was hanging out with my Dad and the Memphis Blues community in the ‘60s, as a teenager. And now, Kenny is the old guy! Passing it along to Dan [Auerbach] and Patrick [Carney].
The thing about Hill Country music is that in its rawest form, undiluted, rawest form, it might be too nasty for public consumption, you know what I mean? But John Spencer turned Auerbach on. Dan said that recently in an interview. And I didn’t know that A Ass Pocket of Whiskey is what turned the Black Keys on to RL Burnside. That’s when I was on the road with RL, the Ass Pocket of Whiskey tour, and he was on the top of his game, touring the world. But when the music is filtered through generations and regions, and reinterpreted and reimagined, then that’s when it becomes of a wider appeal. I just think that raw, unadulterated Mississippi music is just too nasty. You gotta work together, ya know?
I know what you mean. That reminds me of a funny story. When I left Mississippi in ’98, I ended up in Washington State for a couple years. And I was so homesick, super homesick. This must have been around 2001. I happened to turn on the radio and hear the DJ talking to you, Cody, and Chris Chew. Y’all were getting ready to play a show as The Word. I [was just] driving around outside Seattle, and was like “Holy shit!” I went to the show and had so much fun. But I could tell, you know, the people there, they were digging the music but nobody was dancing the way I was dancing. I got a lot of comments from folks, like, “How’d you learn to dance like that?!” I just said, “I’m from Mississippi! It’s in my blood!” And I have to say that y’all’s music got me through some homesick years.
I’m so glad. And that’s what music all about, man. Memories. It’s true—it you think about early rock n roll, you think about British blues rock. Mississippi music, it’s like the root. And you know, not many people are going to get down and chew on the root. But then you get to the leaves and the flowers and then everybody can enjoy the fruits of the labor.
What do you have upcoming? Any new projects or tours or shows coming up?
Yeah, the Allstars are back to work. We’ve been touring a lot already. And it feels so, so good to get back to work. We have a new Allstars record that will be coming out early next year, and we are super excited about that. And I’m always working with Sharde. You know, besides Cody, she’s my greatest collaborator. We just recorded a really cool record with G Love. G Love came to Mississippi to make a collaborative Mississippi record. We had so many guests roll through, and everyone just did fantastic. G Love was just ecstatic. We’re finishing that record, so that will be coming out next year, as well. He came to the Zebra Ranch and Sharde came, and RL Boyce came, and Cam Kimbrough came, and Kingfish came, it was fantastic.
I bet that was a fun party.
It was so good. And G Love has some great songs so everyone contributed. It’s really exciting, it’s an exciting collaboration.
Where can fans find you online, what’s your strongest platform these days?
I’m not online. I’m a recovering Instagram addict. I post stuff to share music with my friends, but I’m not actively online.
All right last question I have is – what are you currently jamming these days?
Last year, it was Prince, Tame Impala, and James Brown. This year it’s James Brown, and oh and a lot of film scores. A lot of Hans Zimmer and Wolfgang film scores. I’m working on a film score, so I’ve been really enjoying studying film scores and studying a whole new side of music. But there’s always that James Brown, that’s the one.