If I tell you Luther Dickinson has a new record, you might automatically think of the North Mississippi Allstars and the Black Crowes, since he plays guitar in both bands. Actually, Dickinson has three new records out, and none of them are Allstars or Crowes projects. He has a solo acoustic guitar disc, a string band record, and an album of mostly traditional songs with four female vocalists. And he’s embarking on a tour that brings him to Cumberland for Delfest on Friday and Saturday.
The Delfest dates will be with The Wandering, something of an Americana supergroup that includes Dickinson (who’s the son of legendary producer/pianist Jim Dickinson, who passed away in 2009), bassist Amy LaVere, guitarist Shannon McNally, banjo player Valerie June, and drummer/fife player Sharde Thomas, the granddaughter of fife master Othar Turner. “The Wandering goes back to dad,” says Dickinson. “After he got sick a few years ago, we started doing benefits, and Amy and Shannon, who recorded with my dad, would show up and play. You know, as female artists, they really trusted him, and that gave me the first inkling for this project.”
From there, Dickinson says “the idea just unfolded,” and he invited the four women to his dad’s recording studio, Zebra Ranch, for a session of traditional music. He asked each of them to bring three or four songs to play, and he was going to produce, just like his father used to do. LaVere brought “Mr. Spaceman,” the Byrds classic—“It’s Amy’s idea of traditional,” says Dickinson, with a chuckle—and McNally brought Sid Selvidge’s “The Outlaw,” amongst chestnuts like “Sittin’ On Top of the World,” “Old Joe Clark,” “In the Pines,” and “You Are My Sunshine.”
“I didn’t intend to play on the record,” says Dickinson, “but it was so much fun, I couldn’t help joining in.”
Rather than producing, he joined the group—which is now called Luther Dickinson and The Wandering—and released the disc they recorded—Go On Now, You Can’t Stay Here—on his own label, Songs of the South.
Dickinson’s acoustic guitar record, Hambone’s Meditations, also came out on Songs of the South. Taking its name from a comic strip that ran in The Memphis Commercial Appeal for nearly half a century, the disc features a handful of original tunes alongside a few traditional gospel numbers. Like The Wandering material, these songs dig deeply into Dickinson’s musical heritage, but here, the guitarist evokes John Fahey more than the Memphis and Mississippi greats he’s long emulated.
His father was a big Fahey fan, but Dickinson says he only recently gained an appreciation for the Takoma Park native and his acoustic picking. “When I was young, Fahey just seemed weird, and I never really got into him,” he says. “But in 2009, some friends introduced me to Jack Rose’s music, which led me back to Fahey. As a grown man, it was like, “Whoa. He’s a giant. It blew me away.”
It also inspired him to record an acoustic record of his own. “It had literally never occurred to me to make a record of acoustic guitar instrumentals,” says Dickinson. “Writing songs for it was really fun—as easy as breathing—because I play a lot of acoustic guitar at home. In fact, I don’t even keep electric guitars at my house.”
Dickinson says the third disc that’s just come out, the South Memphis String Band’s Old Times There, was “made under duress.” The group’s debut, Home Sweet Home, was an ad hoc affair, recorded between gigs with the homespun intimacy of a joyful side hustle. The band, which also includes Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jimbo Matthus, considered it a one-off project until the record label sent along a letter saying it expected a second disc, and soon.
Apparently, none of the band members had read the original contract carefully, so they reassembled at Matthus’ home studio in Como, Mississippi and recorded another batch of material.
If Dickinson and crew resented it, you’d never know by the finished product, which, like its predecessor, is a gloriously ramshackle affair. Check out “Good Old Rebel” and the version of Jim Dickinson’s “Wildwood Boys.” It’s what the Stones would sound like if they’d had their glory days in the 1870s rather than the 1970s.
It's irked some blues purists, which irks Dickinson. “I believe some people are thinking about it way too much, instead of just enjoying it,” he says. “We weren’t trying to sound like any era. We were just playing music, having fun, and acknowledging our heritage. After all, that’s what it’s all about.”
His dad would be proud.