In keeping with its reference to the interstate highway that spans American south to north, the North Mississippi Allstars’ 51 Phantom (released 10/9/01) finalizes a creative route first sketched out on the band’s debut Shake Hands With Shorty. Following a dalliance with proto-punk metal in the form of Thrash-funk trio DDT (and its big band counterpart) and after mentoring from their near-mythic father-figure Jim Dickinson (who worked at Sun Studios and subsequently collaborated with the Rolling Stones as well as the Replacements), the latter’s offspring Luther and Cody formed The North Mississippi Allstars as means of returning to the blues roots embedded deep in the hill country of their home.
The NMAS sophomore effort followed its predecessor by just a year, quickly and emphatically solidifying the impression of precocious young musicians utilizing a grasp on musical history as a means to ignite their future creativity. Maintaining an artistic relationship with elder Dickinson, who produced the album to leave it essentially raw, the brothers recruited bassist/vocalist Chris Chew (from musical affiliations growing up in church) in order to establish a readily identifiable sound as well as the foundation of a repertoire they, by and large, maintain to this day.
Yet in a variation on the, ‘it’s the singer not the song’ truism, the Allstars vigorously punch out reliable staples like “Freedom Highway” and “Snakes in My Bushes” (with the electric washboard Cody regularly solos on live). The Allstars’ music comes so naturally to them that its essential character benefits from, but is never tainted by, small touches on arrangements such as East Memphis Slim’s Omnichord and Paul Taylor’s extra percussion of “Up Over Yonder.” Likewise, and with a minimum of notes, Otha Turner’s cane fife on “Circle In The Sky” hearkens to the history of this song, placed in a contemporary context.
Notwithstanding the (over) familiarity of the material, however, the playing styles of the two Dickinson brothers are equally recognizable. Yet the two are as distinct as they are complementary in their respective instrumental approaches: whether going deep to get dirty or soaring proportionately high, Luther exerts a light touch on his guitars, retaining an assertive precision that belies his quickness. Cody is his mirror image as he works the drums, exercising a gleeful, hard-hitting authority even as he manages to keep a bounce in his beats. The innate virtues of both men are on full display during “Ship,” to name just one fluid, insinuating track of the eleven here.
Clearly, the Dickinson offspring are the definition of born musicians. Yet they, like Chew, have also honed their inherent skills throughout years of playing, formal and otherwise, not just together but with other like-minded musicians who’ve helped fine-tune their instincts. Regular collaborations like Hill Country Revue: Live at Bonnaroo maintain connections with kindred spirits like the Burnside family, while the trio are also linchpins in The Word with pedal steel wunderkind Robert Randolph and keyboardist extraordinaire John Medeski (partner of Martin and Wood). NMAS’ musicianship sounds as fresh as it does on “Sugartown,” for instance, because they are continuously rediscovering the passion at its core fully ignited by such numbers on 51 Phantom.
Apart from a short digression into a more rock-oriented style on the next album, Polaris, (where, perhaps not coincidentally, they were joined by Duwayne Burnside on guitar and vocals), the threesome would not appreciably alter their sound except for the slight commercial streamlining on the 2005 ATO Records debut Electric Blue Watermelon. And when Chew formally ceased touring with his two compatriots roughly a decade later, the Dickinsons returned to their full-force devotion to the blues, the steadfast likes of which has been documented by a long string of live and studio recordings and videos, independent and otherwise, the siblings’ presence constant amid rounds of personnel changes.
Various additional endeavors outside the scope of the North Mississippi Allstars–the former’s tenure with the Black Crowes and the latter’s production of kindred spirits such as Gina Sicilia– only further authenticate the proud Southerners’ allegiance to their main influences as stipulated twenty years ago on51 Phantom. The love to play instilled in them as youngsters stood them in good stead then as it continues to do so now.