The music world lost a great maverick when producer Jim Dickinson died two years ago of heart complications, at the age of 67. Originally a session keyboardist who played with Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones among many others, Dickinson became a champion of all that was primal and impassioned, be it the Delta blues that he loved or the alt-rock milestones he produced, often with bands nobody else would touch—beginning with one of rock’s ultimate cult classics, the tortured Big Star’s Third and stretching through the Replacements (Pleased to Meet Me). In recent years, Dickinson was one of the few active producers who hated ProTools, preferring to work by feel and sweat.
Dickinson was also a mentor to his two sons, guitarist Luther and drummer Cody, who formed the North Mississippi Allstars a decade ago. And it was the elder Dickinson’s death that spurred his two sons to revive the Allstars after a three-year hiatus, during which time Luther hit some guitar-hero glories as a member of the Black Crowes. With a credit reading “Produced for Jim Dickinson,” the new Keys to the Kingdom is a different kind of Allstars album, losing the hip-hop and arena rock touches that they took on over the years. The result is the group’s most personal album, and its most classic-sounding—and as Luther Dickinson explains in our phone interview, it was the most intuitive as well.
The loss of your dad was clearly a pivotal event, but one positive outcome was that it got you and your brother playing music together again.
We were going to do that anyway. The band was never in peril or anything; we were always going to play together, but three years ago was a good time to take a break. We’d been touring pretty relentlessly before then. But there was a moment when my dad was sick in the hospital and he told us, “Don’t stop playing music together. You’re better together than you’ll ever be apart.” So when the album happened, the songs pretty much wrote themselves, and we tried to adhere to my dad’s production aesthetic as much as we possibly could.
What exactly was that aesthetic? If there’s one thing people associate with Jim Dickinson’s production, it’s that he liked to get everything down in one or two takes.
That was exactly it. You don’t belabor performance in the studio for the expense of feel; if you don’t get it you come back another day. But I was also thinking about the sound of the record. In the past, I’ve experimented with guitars, had two amps turned up really loud, and he’d say, “Jesus, that’s an ego explosion! The guitar should be a mono signal.” So he liked mono guitars, he liked mono drums, and he liked as few takes as possible. We tried to keep with that. Even as old fashioned as we already are, we tried to keep this as old-fashioned as possible.
Keys to the Kingdom deals specifically with your dad’s passing, but it sounds like you wanted to avoid making it too downcast.
That comes from watching my dad go through that period of time, coming to the end of his earthly cycle. He was so brave and so thankful for this life—and he fought for months until he did not want to hang on. One of the last things he wrote, to be read at his memorial, was, “I refuse to celebrate death. I’ve given my life to music and it’s given me back a hundredfold.” And man, it was so awesome to see that bravery. That’s the way I felt and that’s the way the songs came out. I wasn’t trying to write songs about my father but they kept coming out so fast. There was a quality that I’d seen from a long time ago—my father and his friends were so spiritual that they weren’t even sad when somebody passed.
Was there a moment growing up when you became aware of the kind of music he was involved with?
Man, I don’t ever remember music not being around. My father had a home studio and his friends were the kind of white bohemian kids who were around when the country blues festivals started happening in Mississippi. It was the resurgence of the first generation of bluesmen—Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes. That’s what we grew up around and what we were surrounded by. I remember my father pointing to his record collection and saying, “This is a wealth of knowledge right here.” So that’s how I found Jimi Hendrix and the Allman Brothers, not to mention Charlie Mingus, Professor Longhair and Earl King. As a wanna-be guitar player, I thought it was my duty to soak up as many traditional styles of guitar as I could. It would have been negligent not to. And a lot of it came from Southern roots music, since that was my dad’s bag.
At the same time, he would become associated with alternative rock. I know that the Replacements’ “Shooting Dirty Pool” (from Pleased to Meet Me) was the first track of his that you got to play on, and that’s a pretty raucous place to start.
I remember being around a lot of those sessions when I was 13—Mojo Nixon, Dash Rip Rock, a lot of great bands from that era. But “Shooting Dirty Pool”—that was a tongue-in- cheek, mock, hard rock song. Westerberg was good at writing those. For whatever reason, my dad hustled me onto that session, and I just made teenaged guitar noises. At one point we all had our hands on the guitar, just making noise.
I’ll tell you the best story about that session: Since I was getting to play, I thought I’d go in wearing my coolest shirt, whatever that was. So I pulled my shirt out of the closet, and it seems I’d worn cologne the last time I had it on. I walked into the studio just reeking, smelling like a pimp, and I was of course unaware of this. So when Paul sings, “You’re the coolest guy that I have ever smelt”—I didn’t know it at the time, but he was making fun of me.
One thing people don’t realize about that album is that Westerberg would never write down any lyrics. Everything on that record came off the top of his head, and my dad would glue everything together later. Especially a song like “I Don’t Know.” The lyrics on that come from many different takes that were edited together.
If I had a 13-year-old son, I might be nervous about letting him hang out with Mojo Nixon and Paul Westerberg.
They were great. I remember Mojo coming to dinner one time and we went downstairs to jam. He sits down at the drums, and breaks the bass drum pedal. Picks up a guitar, breaks a string. Picks up a bass, breaks a bass string. He wasn’t a bad influence on me, just on our instruments.
I assume Alex Chilton also remained in the picture, since your dad produced Big Star’s Third around the time you were born.
He was a family friend who was around, but that was more the time I was younger. I think I last saw him in a convenience store across the street from Ardent Studios. But I remember when I was real young, finding the tapes of the rough mixes of Like Flies on Sherbert (Chilton’s Dickinson-produced solo album from 1979), playing them over and over and just being fascinated by them.
That album would have scared me as a kid.
It scared Alex! They never rehearsed the songs. My dad just came in with his band, Mudboy and the Neutrons, and they started making this terrible racket. And of course Big Star’s Third was pretty out there too. I think he and my father just pushed each other.
When I saw the Black Crowes last year, you’d taken over a lot of the lead guitar work. You seemed to have a stronger position in the band than any of the other guitarists who’d played alongside Rich Robinson.
That was just the natural evolution of the relationship we had and the respect we have for each other. I’d always been frustrated with the band because the guitar players would always play on top of each other; it was a mess. To hear two people going for it at once—I don’t like that at all. There are a few songs in their repertoire where you have to do that; it’s part of the arrangement. But even on those occasions I’d listen so closely to Rich that I could avoid stepping on him. I was the first guitar player that was in there because Rich and I were friends. He hired me, and he showed me the respect not to play on top of my lead work. I enjoyed playing rhythm when he did lead, and that chemistry cemented as the years progressed.
The Black Crowes formally went on hiatus at the end of last year, so I assume that’s off the table for the time being?
Yeah, that’s what they tell me, and I’d known for over a year that it was the plan. They’re in the same situation the North Mississippi Allstars were in, where you need to take a break. But if you look at what was accomplished, it was a really good run—I joined during Warpaint, then we did Before the Frost/Until the Freeze, and I was really proud of the songwriting on that record. Even the final run of shows at the Fillmore was pretty strong. So it was a productive time for the band, and for the time being they’ve closed the book. I was glad to be part of it; I can’t think of another band I would have made such an upheaval in my life for. I had to shut down the family business for it.
So the business is now back open with the Allstars going fulltime?
Yeah, and it’s funny. In the creative process, you have to take a break so you can get your shit together to make more records. In your cycle, there’s always going to be a “road record,” where all the songs on it are about life on the road. Our second record, 51 Phantom, was like that, and when I look at songs I’m writing for the next album, here I am doing it again. There was a time, especially on the third album, when we lost track of what made us unique, especially that regional perspective that we had. This time we’re trying to stay true to what the original spark was. My dad used to say that the blues is mature music, it’s not children’s music like rock ’n’ roll is, and you can grow old gracefully with it. I got my baby girl in my arms right now; she was born right after my dad passed, and your life gets richer as you experience more.
Judging from the new track “New Orleans Walking Dead,” I would guess that you’ve spent a Halloween or two in town.
Not Halloween, but some very late nights. My wife and I got engaged in New Orleans and we had some very romantic times. I spent a lot of nights at the Maple Leaf playing with Johnny Vidacovich. You definitely see the zombies hanging out there; I think everybody’s seen one from time to time.