World boogie is back. The North Mississippi Allstars are coming to Track 29 this Saturday, March 3. Guitarist Luther Dickinson, his brother Cody and their buddy, bass player Chris Chew, grew up steeped in the blues. Luther and Cody’s father, the legendary Memphis-based pianist and producer, Jim Dickinson, baptized them in the blues when they were very young.
Dickinson was mentored by Sam Phillips, the pioneering producer and owner of Sun Records. Long before Phillips took Elvis Presley into his studio, he’d recorded a number of local bluesmen, including Howlin’ Wolf. Phillips loved the blues, but in the early 1950s few outside the Black community listened. Presley helped change all that, of course, and by the early ’60s when Dickinson was coming of age, hip white boys were discovering the blues.
Young college kids were looking for the long-forgotten progenitors of pre-war country blues—one of whom was the guitarist John Fahey. He sent a general delivery letter to the post office in Aberdeen, Miss., addressed to “Booker T. Washington White (old blues singer).” Against all odds it found its way to the aging musician, who hadn’t played in 20 years. That was in 1962. By 1963, Bukka White had shortened his name and become a celebrated performer at country blues festivals all over the South.
The only problem was that the young, white audiences wanted him to replicate the music he’d played in the 1930s, while Bukka wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll. Being a consummate showman, Bukka met them halfway and began peppering his sets of the old songs with his take on Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the other rock ‘n’ roll pioneers. He called it “World Boogie.” Jim Dickinson was a fan and made the old bluesman’s proclamation “World Boogie is Coming” his mantra. For his sons it has become a guiding principle. As Luther told an interviewer recently, “We’re definitely a product of that collision of white and black culture. “
The Dickinson brothers, like Bukka White, understand that the blues—-like any living thing—needs to be fed to stay alive. An old farmer himself, R. L. Burnside knew that rich soil needs fresh fertilizer. He applied that same principle to his music. In the late 1990s, Burnside, approaching 80, taught a new generation that the blues could still rule the dance floor. He gave his old-time John Lee Hooker-style, single-string boogie a new edge with the help of his grandson and a young punk band. Re-energized, he introduced a new generation to rock ‘n’ roll the way Bukka had played it. The North Mississippi Allstars were all ears.
These days a typical set of what Luther calls “electric folk music” adds some sacred steel snap and a dash of psychedelic flash to Burnside’s country blues. Listening to Luther on stage dueling with his brother’s restless, kinetic drums is a lot like listening to the young Allman Brothers or Clapton’s Cream. But what sets them apart from the legion of young musicians schooled on the music of bands who copied what they heard on the old records is that they learned it straight from the source.
Luther’s slide playing has the energy and the precision of Duane Allman, but within a single song he’ll add a Little Feat shuffle, some ZZ Top glide and a touch of Widespread Panic, as his brother plays a manic counterpoint on the drums. Cody Dickinson doesn’t play backup; he plays against his brother pushing him to play harder and faster as the set progresses.Underneath it all, the massive Chew’s muscular bass lines anchor Luther’s stratospheric riffing while snaking in and around Cody’s restless drums grounding them both with a sturdy, steady hand.
If you’ve heard the band’s first album, “Shake Hands With Shorty,” you have a handle on their sound. They were very young when they made that album. From the first note it sounds as if “Shorty” had a live wire in his hand making the young musicians shake like men possessed. Their playing has the breathless brio of young men who’ve found their métier. Reflecting on the record recently, Chew said they were making boys’ music then; now they’re making adult music. The difference is clear in their control and their precision. It still has the same unhinged verve, but the seasoning of 16 years together is apparent in every note.
North Mississippi Allstars
Saturday, March 3 - 8 p.m. at Track 29
Online: Track29.Co Phone: (423) 521-2929
Richard Winham is the host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.