The dad behind the North Mississippi Allstars

June 14, 2008 6:03:33 PM PDT
Jim Dickinson has played with Dylan, opened for Clapton and helped define the Memphis sound in a 40-year career as a music maverick. But his favorite gig came with the little-known Hardly Can Playboys. Dickinson played keys for the short-lived quintet that featured his eldest son, 15-year-old Luther, on guitar and the youngest, 12-year-old Cody, behind the kit. These days his sons are better known as two-thirds of the North Mississippi Allstars, the roots-rockers who did papa proud by helping revitalize the sagging blues scene.

"He would teach us a rock 'n' roll song, a gospel song, a country song, all different types of roots music," Luther Dickinson said in the back of his tour bus during a recent stop in Jackson. "I learned to play with a piano player and I learned to play different types of music that he loved. And that's always been a huge aspect of our career."

The Allstars have carved out a unique niche with their Hill Countrified blend of rock and blues. They just wrapped up a 20-city tour in support of their sixth album, "Hernando," an homage to the Memphis suburb of their childhood that turned out to be the perfect incubation chamber for a couple of aspiring musicians.

Twelve years after forming, the Allstars have been nominated for three Grammys, played hundreds of gigs around the world and are secure in their careers. They've achieved the kind of success every father hopes for, but Dickinson wasn't always sure his sons were headed in that direction as they banged away on clunky chord changes and slightly arrhythmic beats.

The Hardly Can Playboys was Dickinson's way of passing on a legacy and a career to his sons.

Considering what they'd given him, it was the least he could do.

"It's always about fathers and sons to me," Dickinson said. "You've got to understand that they saved my life. It was the '70s and the drugs and the lifestyle that we were all a part of. I have a graveyard full of dead friends and my boys very definitely saved my life. I owe them for that. I always will."

As he has in an eclectic career as artist, sideman and producer, Jim Dickinson, 67, turned conventional wisdom upside down after his sons were born. He showed rock 'n' rollers don't have to live the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. And he subverted the idea that a great dad has to be a 9-to-5 square.

"My first experiences with live music were his bands, Mudboy and the Neutrons particularly," Cody Dickinson said. "I continue to mine my father's repertoire for material, and it's really working out."

Music was everywhere as the boys grew up, from the blues- and R&B-informed rock their father played to the ancient bluesmen he befriended to the itinerant sidemen who ate in their mother's kitchen and slept out back in the barn.

Dickinson's credits stretch back four decades to when he first met his wife of 44 years, Mary Lindsay. He's managed an outsider's career in an insider's industry, recording and producing with greats like Aretha Franklin, Big Star, the Rolling Stones and Sam and Dave.

It wasn't until his sons came along that he found his true calling, though. Luther, now 35, said their father tried to discourage them, but the kids were "goners."

When dad wasn't teaching them chords, he was giving them lessons in musical taste with his expansive record collection. They first heard R.L. Burnside and Otha Turner mining that stack of vinyl.

"And when I first saw Jimi Hendrix on a public TV station," Luther Dickinson said, "he was like, 'Oh, here, you'll like this."' He took them to see everybody from Guns 'n' Roses to Junior Kimbrough and they tagged along on gigs if the club wasn't too sketchy.

They both started on toy drum kits and Luther eventually turned to the guitar. Their first gig was in elementary school as the Rebelaires. The Dickinsons thought they were their kids' biggest fans, but found they were just members of the club.

"They just tore down the house," Mary Lindsay said of that first gig. "They were late coming out and Jim says, 'Luther, where were you?' And Luther said, 'Well, I had to talk to all the girls."' The boys spent all their free time in the basement. The racket was a joyful noise to Jim Dickinson.

"I'd hear them playing what appeared to be chaos only they were doing it together, you know," he said. "And they're still largely unaware of it when it happens because it's so natural. And it enables them to improvise in a way even really great jazz musicians can't."

Cody, 32, proved a polyrhythmic natural. By 12 "he was playing like a man" and taking solos in concert. Luther didn't have the same gift. Though his first word was "studio" and he was fascinated with his father's reel-to-reel tape players, he had to work for every note he played.

"I'm not going to lie to you," Jim told Luther. "Keep practicing. I'm not going to tell you you can play until you get somewhere with it."

When the boys began writing songs, Dickinson took them to Sam Phillips' studio. If anybody could get a record out of them, it was the veteran Memphis producer Roland Janes. But they weren't ready.

So he recruited a couple of friends to play bass and sax and set up the Playboys. Those were among the best gigs of Jim Dickinson's life. But at the same time he was teaching the boys, they had an impact on him.

"If you look back at my records that I've made as a producer, they're pretty left wing," he said. "It's some pretty off-the-wall stuff. Especially in the punk rock days. I literally took clients because I thought it would impress my children."

After a year, Dickinson decided the kids were all right. Luther remembers that day with pride: "When I was 16, he was like, 'Son, you've got a car, a guitar and an amp. Go see what you can hustle up. There's nothing more I can do for you."'