The North Mississippi Allstars: Songs For Their Father When Memphis musician and producer Jim Dickinson died in August 2009, his sons Luther and Cody spent the following months writing and recording an ode to their father. This month, their band The North Mississippi Allstars released Keys to the Kingdom.
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The North Mississippi Allstars: Songs For Their Father

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The North Mississippi Allstars: Songs For Their Father

The North Mississippi Allstars: Songs For Their Father

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Longtime Memphis musician and producer Jim Dickinson always told his sons: You need to be playing music together. You're better together than you'll ever be apart. Luther and Cody Dickinson grew up hearing those words, along with the music of Memphis and beyond that their father helped shape.

So, when Jim Dickinson died in August of 2009, the brothers coped the way they knew best - through music.

(Soundbite of song, "The Meeting")

THE NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS: (Singing) Pre-tell my brother, where you heading, where you going this morning, where you headin'?

WERTHEIMER: Those studio sessions led to a new album, called "Keys to the Kingdom." Luther and Cody Dickinson are two members of the band that made that record, The North Mississippi Allstars. They're in our studios at NPR West. Luther, thanks for being with us.

Mr. LUTHER DICKINSON (Musician, North Mississippi Allstars): Thank you so much.

WERTHEIMER: And, Cody, thank you.

Mr. CODY DICKINSON (Musician, North Mississippi Allstars): Hi, Linda. Oh, I'm so happy to be here.

WERTHEIMER: We're listening to a song called "The Meeting."

(Soundbite of song, "The Meeting")

NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS: (Singing) It's not a question of whether or not, it's a question of when. Come on. I'm going to the meeting. I'm going to the meeting. I'm going to the meeting, on the other side...

Mr. L. DICKINSON: We had the pleasure of the wonderful Mavis Staples singing on this song with us, the queen of American soul.

WERTHEIMER: Did she know your dad?

Mr. L. DICKINSON: Yes, when the family met in Memphis years ago. But we've worked with Mavis off and on over the years.

WERTHEIMER: Cody, what about you? Around the time of his death, you were both touring and you were touring with other bands.

Mr. C. DICKINSON: His illness was sudden. Once he got sick - he was sick for a long time and he was in and out of the hospital for quite some time - and it definitely brought us together as a family, you know, but it was a very intense experience. Very sad. We miss him so much, you know.

WERTHEIMER: There's another song that we liked on this record. It's called "Hear The Hills." It's an evocative song about the landscape of North Mississippi, which I guess is where you all grew up?

Mr. L. DICKINSON: Indeed.

(Soundbite of song, "Hear The Hills")

NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS: (Singing) The sun is sinking low to the Mississippi, the shadow of death darkens the valley...

WERTHEIMER: Do you find that happens every once and a while, that you write about a place?

Mr. L. DICKINSON: Definitely. You know, it's like a play. You know, records have a setting and a period of time sometimes. And it's something our father always kind of instilled in us, 'cause he appreciated it. Our father used to always say production in absentia is the highest form of the art of production. And he's reached that echelon.

WERTHEIMER: Influence, having an influence over you without actually telling you what to do.

Mr. L. DICKINSON: Exactly.

Mr. C. DICKINSON: Yeah, that's it.

Mr. L. DICKINSON: It's funny - in the past, I would always have some sort of aesthetic agenda that I was trying to adhere to or experiment with. And we would argue about how the right way to do this or that. And he would always let me have that way in the past. But on this record, we adhered to his production aesthetic in every way.

WERTHEIMER: We're speaking to Luther and Cody Dickinson from the North Mississippi All-Stars. The band has a new CD, which is called "Keys to the Kingdom."

Now, there's a song on the record that has a piano ending on it.

Mr. C. DICKINSON: Right. Growing up, there was a juke joint through the woods about a half a mile away from us. We would hear strange sounds just growing up in the country. You know, I distinctly remember hearing the sounds of that juke joint at night. This piano track - to me, it feels like you're standing in the woods at night and you hear like an old church house somewhere off in the distance that you just can't quite find or you can hear the piano in there. Or, you know, it's the angelic piano from heaven. You know, it was just the ode to our father.

(Soundbite of song, "Hear The Hills")

WERTHEIMER: And the guy who's playing the piano is Spooner Oldham?

Mr. L. DICKINSON: The wonderful Spooner Oldham. Our father was a piano player, of course, and Spooner was his favorite. And unfortunately dad couldn't play on the record, so I drove to Muscle Shoals and spent an afternoon with Spooner and he just played so wonderfully.

WERTHEIMER: You went to collect Spooner Oldham. You just went down to where he was and recorded him there? Is that how you did it?

Mr. L. DICKINSON: Indeed. This whole record, for the first time, we used musicians of my father's generation as opposed to our friends, which we've used in the past. Spooner offered to come to our studio, but I decided to go to Muscle Shoals. It's a famous pilgrimage for Memphis musicians to go to Muscle Shoals and work. And I'd never done it.

Concerning Mavis Staples, I flew to Chicago on a day off and recorded Mavis in Chicago where she lives. They both, you know, knocked it out in first, second takes. And Mavis is so cool, 'cause she really was first take. And she was like, you don't want me to do it again? I was like, no, ma'am. And she was like, oh, bless your heart. Some people want them to have the old girl sing all day.

(Soundbite of song, "The Meeting")

NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS: (Singing) You've not arrived, when I arrived. Go raise my voices in showers, raise my voice in showers. There's nobody there, nobody there. Don't try to turn me out, who's gonna turn me out. Steady as a tree, steady as a tree, free as the wind, free as the wind. I'll walk on water to kiss my friends. Steady as a tree, steady as a tree. Free as the wind, free as the wind.

WERTHEIMER: One of the things that seems very strange and sad, I guess, in a way, is that the track "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," that was your papa's idea.

Mr. L. DICKINSON: It was. One night, I was staying with dad in the hospital and he couldn't talk - he was on a respirator. But the summer of '09 there was a wonderful Bob Dylan article in Mojo magazine, and I took this article up there and read it to him. Bob had some beautiful ideas about the south and the southern history and southern music.

And dad was like, he wanted his pen and paper. And he wrote down, he was like: Stuck inside of Memphis. I was like, OK. Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again. And he was like, right, right, right. And he wrote one-chord song. I was like, oh, one chord, like hill-country boogie-type song. And he was like, yes, that's it. And I was like, you know, I promised him we would do it.

(Soundbite of song, "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again")

NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS: (Singing) There's an old queen in the alley, behind the small hotel, talking some French girl, who said she knew me well. I got to listening closely, to see if she spills her bills, 'cause he knows I know she knows they know but we don't know what it means. Oh, mama, could this really be the end? To be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again.

WERTHEIMER: Maybe you should explain to me what a one-chord...

Mr. C. DICKINSON: Boogie.

WERTHEIMER: ...boogie is.

Mr. L. DICKINSON: Well, hill-country blues, North Mississippi hill-country blues, almost all that music is based on just a one-chord drone style. You know, the emphasis is on the rhythm and the melody. And lots of blues, most all of music, and as chord progressions that change. You know, the harmony changes. But the hill-country blues is more hypnotic and drone-y.

So, with this song, "Stuck Inside of Mobile," I had a lot of chords and I took the chords out and based the song on the melody.

WERTHEIMER: And so your father left that one with you?

Mr. L. DICKINSON: He did indeed, and it was a good idea, man. One of his many good ideas.

(Soundbite of song, "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again")

NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS: (Singing) I spat out, there, cool it, baby. You know about my debutante. And he said, she just knows what you need, but I know what you want. Oh, mama, could this really be the end? To be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again. The doctor gave me two choices...

WERTHEIMER: The North Mississippi Allstars' latest CD is "Keys to the Kingdom." Band members Luther and Cody Dickinson spoke to us from NPR West. Thank you both.

Mr. L. DICKINSON: Thank you.

Mr. C. DICKINSON: Thanks for having us.

WERTHEIMER: You can hear tracks from the album on our website,

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon will be back next week. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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