Allstars Outdo Themselves in Tribute to Dad Review of “Keys to the Kingdom” by North Mississippi Allstars Sounds of the South

, 2011

When I was still a novice record buyer in the 1960s & early 70s, I had an almost fool proof method of deciding when to buy a record by someone I’d never heard. The method required me to scan the list of sidemen, producers, engineers, songwriters etc. who had helped out with the album. Names like Ry Cooder, David Bromberg, Red Rhodes, Ed Freeman, Paul Griffin, Pete Carr, Charlie McCoy, Russ Kunkel, and Jim Dickinson were names that appeared on a lot of albums I liked, and if I found they were playing on an album, I’d be more likely to buy it. Dickinson played on many of my favorite records, in particular, ones by Ry Cooder and the Rolling Stones. When I found out some years ago that his sons, Luther & Cody, were 2/3’s of the North Mississippi Allstars, I was anxious to hear them. Although “On the Road (Furry’s Blues)” is the finest remake of Furry Lewis’ “Kassie Jones” ever, I wasn’t that crazy about the rest of their stuff. It was a little too blues-rock/jam band for me. Over the years I’ve listened to them off and on and although I appreciated their talent, it was their side projects, like the South Memphis String Band, the Hill Country Revue or their sideman work with Jimbo Mathis that impressed me most. “Key’s to the Kingdom” is their newest album and it was recorded just after their father, Jim, passed away from complications from bypass heart surgery and just after the birth of guitarist Luther’s son. At the time their father got sick, the two brothers were no longer playing together, having put the North Mississippi Allstar’s on hold while Luther went on tour with the Black Crowes & Cody with the Hill Country Review. With their father’s illness and death, they were brought back home where together with their band mate Chris Chews and some of their father’s old friends, they entered their Zebra Studio and produced a great album tribute to the man who always told them “they played better together than they ever did apart.” From the beginning of this album, you get the feeling that the brothers were trying to write from their late father’s point of view. The album is a tribute to him, he’s listed as the producer on the record and on the back cover it says “Produced for Jim Dickinson”. The opening cut begins with the singer saying “I hate to be treated this a’way”. We all know that death is inevitable, but we still don’t like it. Well-schooled in the blues tradition of lifting lines from other blues songs to create new ones, Luther borrows liberally in this one, taking the opening line from “Samson and Delilah” by Rev Gary Davis and others. He also mentions “two white horses in a line” which can be traced back to Blind Lemon Jefferson. The second cut, “Jumpercable Blues” kicks things up a little and falls into a joking kind of anger where the singer sings “Hey hey, well, well, all ya’ll can go straight to hell/you’ve seen the last of me pissin’ in your wishin’ well.” By now he’s ready to laugh at his fate, but not without some bitterness.

This is followed by “The Meeting”, a Gospel blues rave-up that features Mavis Staples singing with Luther about “going to the meeting on the other side”. “Stand up and walk on/it’s the beginning of the end” they say, “it’s not a question of whether or not, /it’s a question of when.” Luther sounds a little like Dr John when he’s singing “If you ain’t right, you better get right.” The groove of this song is moving toward an acceptance of death. This and the next two, more melancholy tunes, move from the anger of having to give up life to the idea of death as deliverance. At this point, the Dickinson’s step away from the blues they’re so familiar with, and move into a more country-rock vein somewhat like the Drive By Truckers. In fact, “I Wish My Train Would Come” and “Hear The Hills”, remind me of the mournful songs of the Band. In “I Wish My Train Would Come” the deliverance of death is being refused by the pain of his disease and he’s asking all the questions of life and death that trouble us all. “It’s a struggle to stay alive” he says at one point and anyone who’s dealt with a dying loved one, knows there comes a time before the end when they simply wish it was over. “I try to believe, it’s hard to believe/that there’s a home out there for me/please deliver me I’m ready to leave,” Luther sings. In “Hear the Hills” (the only song for which Cory Dickinson is credited as writer) he has “seen proof of God/and I don’t mind dying.” The “Hills” are the famous Mississippi Hill Country where Jim as well as Cody and Luther were born. The song ends with “Rest in peace my friend/rest in peace,” followed by the chorus then fades out to silence, then, after a drum roll, Luther takes a long, blistering lead and the song closes out to the sound of crickets, with Jim Dickinson’s old friend Spooner Oldham playing piano, as though it were coming from a distant juke joint a few miles down the road. What may be the best cut on the album is a re-interpretation of the Dylan classic “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”. During his final days, the elder Dickinson told Luther that he thought the song should be done as a one chord Hill Country Blues song and Luther proceeded to turn it into that. It is hard for anyone to touch the masterfulness of any of Dylan’s recordings between “Bringing It All Back Home” and “John Wesley Harding”, but what Hendrix was able to do for “All Along the Watchtower”, the Dickinson’s were able to do with “Memphis Blues Again”. It works so well that it becomes the centerpiece of the record, although it’s the one song that doesn’t fall into the theme of death. “Ain’t No Grave” is a rewrite of the old blues standard, which features Dickinson’s old mate Ry Cooder and say’s repeatedly “I would hope to be brave as he was on judgment day.” That’s followed by “Ol’ Cannonball”, which features a duet between Luther and Alvin Youngblood Hart who doubles on mandolin, and harmonica, and gives it a real jug band feel. The song is joyous even though the Ol’ Cannonball that “is bearin’ down on me” is a train called Death. The album finishes out with three death marches that all owe something to the New Orleans Jazz Funeral. “New Orleans Walkin’ Dead” is about dancin’ with Zombies and “Let it Roll” has a swampy feel with church bells tolling and souls being blessed. “Jellyrollin’ All Over Heaven” ends the record on an upbeat note with Jim, like RL Burnside, “in Heaven sittin’ down/stummin’ my harp and shinin’ my crown.” It is an emotional record, created as a reverent remembrance of their father’s life and work, both as a musician and a father.

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