Owing in large part to heavy touring, the North Mississippi Allstars have become one of Mississippi’s most recognized rock bands. Versed in the traditional music of the region, the group’s sound is a contemporary mash of hill country blues, southern rock, gospel, and other popular music from Mississippi and across the South.
Since forming the group in Hernando in 1996, bassist Chris Chew, guitarist Luther Dickinson, and drummer Cody Dickinson have released both studio albums and live recordings. Cody and Luther are the sons of producer Jim Dickinson, noted for his impact on the Memphis music scene and for his work performing, recording, and producing work by the Rolling Stones, Big Star, the Replacements, Ry Cooder, and Bob Dylan, among others. Though their father was most associated with Memphis, the Dickinson brothers grew up in Hernando and spent their formative years in the company of North Mississippi blues legends including R. L. Burnside, Otha Turner, and Junior Kimbrough. The particulars of hill country blues—in particular, the upbeat focus on a single, repeated chord—served as foundation for the North Mississippi Allstars music.
After spending several years on the road as show openers, the North Mississippi Allstars released their debut album, Shake Hands with Shorty, in 2000. The recording earned the group a Grammy nomination in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category, and the band received a 2001 W. C. Handy award for Best New Artist Debut. The albums Phantom 51 and Electric Blue Watermelon earned Grammy nominations, and the band has garnered critical praise from Rolling Stone, Spin, and other publications. In 2011, following Jim Dickinson’s death, the band released Keys to the Kingdom, a studio album described as a “song cycle” related to his death. Complementing the group’s studio work are live recordings, including a Live in the Hills series of releases recorded at the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic festival in Potts Camp. Recent releases include World Boogie Is Coming (2013), Live at Jazz Fest (2014), and Prayer for Peace (2017).
The North Mississippi Allstars are best known for their energetic concerts. They are often grouped in the “jam band” category because of their onstage improvisation and their adherence to both a stripped-down production and instrumental approach. The Allstars are mainstays on the festival circuit and have played with such other well-known jam bands as the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Los Lobos, and Phil Lesh and Friends. Musically, the Dickinsons’ take on hill country trance blues and southern rock is paired with Chew’s gospel-influenced walking bass. Echoing Burnside and other forebears, the group’s original material is often paired with contemporary takes on such hill country blues staples as “Goin’ Down South” or “Po Black Maddie.”
The Allstars frequently work on stage or in the studio with guest musicians of note, including Robert Plant, Duwayne Burnside, Lucinda Williams, Robert Randolph, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Otha Turner’s legacy, the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. Side projects include recording with touring peers John Medeski and Robert Randolph as the Word (2001) and serving as backing band for roots rocker John Hiatt. Cody Dickinson and Chew are also members of contemporary blues outfit the Hill Country Revue, and Luther Dickinson has performed and recorded with Alvin Youngblood Heart and Jimbo Mathis as the South Memphis String Band. For several years Luther Dickinson has also performed with southern rock group the Black Crowes.
Two constants for the Allstars remain their acclaimed live performances and their North Mississippi base. When not on tour the band members may be found producing music at the Zebra Ranch studio in Coldwater.
- Hap Fry, Fort Collins Coloradoan (4 February 2010)
- Bob Mehr, Commercial Appeal (23 August 2009)
- North Mississippi Allstars website, www.nmallstars.com
- Ernest Suarez, Washington Post (26 February 2010)
- Zebra Ranch website, www.zebraranch.com