There's never been a proponent of Mississippi hill country blues more creative and prodigious that guitarist Luther Dickinson, whose searing, gritty electric slide work helped to propel the gutbucket sound from juke joint trenches to the world stage.
As the North Mississippi All-Stars, Dickinson and his drumming brother Cody (with now-retired bassist Chris Chew) tore up jam band stages from coast to coastline. The band—which still exists, as a sibling duo—was nominated for three Grammys, and Luther went on to play with the Black Crowes for two years. He’s had two more Grammy nominations as a solo artist.
The Savannah Music Festival finds him in a (sort of) new guise, playing as part of an ad hoc acoustic quartet dubbed Southern Soul Assembly. The others, no slouches themselves, are JJ Grey, Anders Osborne and Marc Broussard.
“It’s a classic singer/songwriter in the round scenario,” Dickinson explains by phone from yet another road stop. “But I think we’ll get jukin’ pretty hard. We’ll be playing with each other, and I think it’ll turn into a ramshackle jug band.”
The idea, he says, came from Mofro man Grey. “I’m sure it’s something all of us have wanted to be a part of and talked about, in different capacities,” Dickinson continues. “Anders and I have been playing together off and on for years now. And I’ve known JJ for many, many, many, many years. We’ve been friends for a really long time.
“So I like to think it was inevitable, and hope that it’s something we continue to do.”
Dickinson’s in a sunny mood. His brand new solo record, Rock ‘n’ Roll Blues, reflects exactly where his predilections are these days. It’s pure front porch, all acoustic country blues, with minimal bass-and-drum backing. On tracks like “Bar Band,” “Blood ‘n Guts” and “Vandalize” (the latter played on a two-string diddley bow), he spins funny (and mostly true) stories about his early years, growing up music-fueled as the son of legendary Memphis-area musician Jim Dickinson.
“I love acoustic music, it’s my heart,” he beams. “I don’t even keep amps in my house. It’s just full of acoustic guitars. It’s just a magic medium for me—knock on wood, everything works when I try it.”
The record is propulsive, raw-sounding DIY but exquisitely executed. “What I got into was the idea of punk rock/folk, you know?” he says. “It still has that attitude, and even that aggression and drive that the song stands for, but it happens to be acoustic. And it’s that old thing with Keith Richards with the distorted acoustic guitar, like ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and ‘Street Fighting Man.’
“I was trying to reference that, where the acoustic guitar can be tough as well.”
Although Dickinson’s solo projects thus far have all been acoustic-based, Rock ‘n’ Roll Blues was very nearly plugged in.
“Some of the songs, I tried recording them loud and more rock ‘n’ roll, all of them actually, but they didn’t turn out as well,” Dickinson says. “They just seemed either under-produced or over-baked. The magic of acoustic is it takes everything down to lowest common denominator.
“And once I found the girls Sharde Thomas and Amy LaVere, the rhythm section, their groove is so earthy and down, I knew that they could help me out. They had my back.”