Just dead, not gone

Pasatiempo - - Pop Cd Reviews - Steve Ter­rell

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.

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