Just dead, not gone
One of the undersung giants of American music died last summer. I speak of Jim Dickinson— songwriter, piano player, record producer, music preservationist, singer (in his own gruff manner), Memphis royalty, and spiritual force.
Dickinson’s footprint is all over the blues and rock ’ n’ roll. He played piano on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” Aretha Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark,” and Bob Dylan’s album Time Out of Mind. He produced albums by The Replacements, Mudhoney, The Flamin’ Groovies, and Big Star. He was a sideman for Ry Cooder for years. He’s responsible for some wonderful field recordings of Sleepy John Estes, Furry Lewis, and Otha Turner. Although a Southerner through and through, he captured the spirit of the Southwest in his soulful, Mexicanflavored “Across the Borderline,” (co-written with Cooder and John Hiatt), the best version of which was sung by Freddy Fender in Cooder’s soundtrack for the 1982 movie The Border.
The list of artists he produced and/or recorded with seems to go on forever: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Jerry JeffWalker, Esther Phillips, Joe “King” Carrasco, T-Model Ford, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Flat Duo Jets, Toots & The Maytals, Jason & The Scorchers, the Tarbox Ramblers, and Petula Clark. Yes, Petula Clark! Dickinson also released several good-time, blues-soaked, countryfried albums of his own in recent years, including Free Beer Tomorrow and Jungle Jim and The Voodoo Tiger. I recently stumbled across a live Dickinson collaboration with Chuck Prophet, A Thousand Footprints in the Sand (a line from “Across the Borderline”) from the ’90s.
Dickinson’s spirit is all over a couple of new CDs involving his son Luther Dickinson, who is best known for his work in the North Mississippi Allstars. There’s Onward and Upward, credited to Luther Dickinson and The Sons of Mudboy, released late last year. And Home Sweet Home by the South Memphis String Band is released on Tuesday, Jan. 19.
Onward and Upward was recorded last August, three days after Jim Dickinson’s death, at the old master’s Zebra Ranch Studio in Independence, Mississippi. Musicians include Jimbo Mathus (best known as the frontman of the Squirrel Nut Zippers), singer Shannon McNally, and two members of Dickinson’s old band, Mudboy and the Neutrons— guitarist Sid Selvidge and Jimmy Crosthwait, who plays washboard and sings. Also on board were Steve Selvidge on dobro and guitar and Paul Taylor on washtub bass.
Dickinson is listed as one of the producers “in absentia.” According to the other producer, David Less, in the liner notes, “To say [the recording sessions] were cathartic for all those participating would be to undervalue the music. Everyone understood that Jim was there and despite his passing, the music can still survive. To quote his epitaph, ‘ I’m just dead, I’m not gone.’ ”
Cathartic or not, this album does have a funereal feel. For the most part, it’s somber and mournful— not to mention heartfelt. I wouldn’t be the first to compare it to a musical wake for Dickinson. Close your eyes and you can easily imagine yourself sitting in his living room while his son and friends pay tribute in the best way they know how.
The album is mostly a collection of classic gospel tunes and spirituals: “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” “Softly and
Tenderly,” “You’ve Got toWalk That Lonesome Highway,” “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and from the bluegrass world, “Angel Band.” It’s acoustic, low-key, and unflashy. Most of the tracks were first takes with no overdubbing or other studio trickery.
Among the standouts are the upbeat “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies,” a song I think I first heard done by Delaney & Bonnie; “Let it Roll,” a dobro-driven dirge written by Dickinson the younger the day he started recording the album; and “Back Back Train,” a Mississippi Fred McDowell song, which features some snazzy washboard and washtub bass interplay. You know that Jim Dickinson is smiling somewhere. Home Sweet Home was recorded sometime before Dickinson’s death. That’s apparent, because he wrote the liner notes for the CD and basically reviewed the album in the process. “If you don’t dig this there is seriously something wrong with you,” he wrote. I won’t go quite that far, but I agree with old Jim that this is seriously righteous album.
Luther Dickinson is joined in the South Memphis String Band by Mathus as well as by Alvin Youngblood Hart. Luther and his pals share Dickinson’s love for the old string bands and jug bands that sprouted up around Memphis and other parts of the South in the early part of the last century. This album has covers of songs done decades before by The Mississippi Sheiks, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Blind Willie Johnson, The Carter Family, and others.
There’s not one but two outlaw songs here — the good old “Jesse James” (yes the one with the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard) and “Bloody Bill Anderson,” which is about the life of an anti-Union guerilla fighter in Missouri during the CivilWar.
And, don’t you know, there’s the sound of a prison chain-gang tune called “Eighteen Hammers.” There are moaning call-and-response vocals, and the percussion sounds like shovels and hoes clanking on the ground.
With its buzzing kazoo, honking harmonica, and lazy rhythm, I assumed “Worry ’Bout Your Own Backyard” was some ancient jug-band song. However, it’s a Mathus original. And a fine one it is.
One of the jewels is Hart’s “Deep Blue Sea,” which he also sang on Otis Taylor’s Recapturing the Banjo a couple of years ago and his own Jim Dickinson-produced album Down in the Alley a few years before that. Actually, Luther Dickinson’s North Mississippi Allstars a few years back took a respectable crack at this folk tune— which has been done by Odetta, Pete Seeger, and who know how many others. But nobody sings it like Hart.
Both CDs are available from Memphis International Records at memphisinternational.com, among other places.