Interview: Luther Dickinson brings The Wandering to the Jefferson

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Luther Dickinson (Photo by Brad Hodge)

Luther Dickinson is best known as an electric guitar hero, whether he’s shredding hill country blues licks with his own North Mississippi Allstars or delivering gritty solos as lead axe man for the Black Crowes. Earlier this month, the Delta native decided to reveal his acoustic side in a big way—by releasing three albums in one day.

The first, Hambone’s Meditation, finds the guitarist finger-picking through mellow instrumentals in the vein of John Fayhee. The second, Old Times There…, is the sophomore effort from the South Memphis String Band, Dickinson’s front porch-style jug band project with Grammy-winning blues man Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. The third and easily most compelling is Go On Now, You Can’t Stay Here, the debut release from The Wandering, a new group that finds Dickinson tackling traditionals like “Old Joe Clark” and “In the Pines” with an all-female quartet of Shannon McNally, Amy LaVere, Valerie June, and Sharde Thomas, head of the Rising Star Fife and Drum band.

C-VILLE Weekly: Is playing acoustic music a new revelation or a return to your roots?
Luther Dickinson: “I don’t keep amps in my house—it’s full of acoustic instruments. I love playing electric guitar, but it’s mostly reserved for when I go to work. I guess I’m an old folkie at heart. This is a snapshot of what I spend my free time doing.”

How did you assemble The Wandering?
“I saw a picture of Valerie in a local magazine playing the banjo. For some reason that made me think of Amy playing the bass, Sharde playing the drums and Shannon singing. In my mind, I could tell this would be an amazing band. I called them all and arranged a casual studio get-together. When they formed, things worked easily, because they all sing really well together. In most musical situations each one of them is usually the only girl in the room. They are relieved to be playing together.

“Sharde and Amy can lock into a hardcore groove, but at the same time the music can be lovely and quiet. Playing with this group has been a different experience for me.”

Hambone’s Meditation has a personal quality to it, even with no words.
“I wrote it two years ago when I was still meditating over the loss of my father (notable producer Jim Dickinson). Also, my daughter was just an infant, so it was both a deeply joyful and sorrowful period for me. I would sit and reflect with my acoustic guitar and the whole record basically wrote itself. The songs would go on their own little journeys. It gave me a whole harmonic freedom to do anything.”

Why did you release the new South Memphis String Band on the same day as the other two?
“That’s a funny story; we made that record under duress. After doing a couple tours the South Memphis String Band had broken up. Then we got a letter in the mail from our record company saying we owed them another album. Apparently we didn’t read the contract. Alvin wanted to shine a light on old-time African-American songwriters—guys like Gus Cannon. I’m glad we did it because this record is a lot better than the first one. I love playing with these guys, but I’m not sure if we’ll tour again. As like-minded as Alvin, Jimbo, and I are, when we get together we’re like three surly old dudes sitting at a country store—a lot of trash talking going on.”

Your Mississippi roots seem really ingrained in the music you play. What’s on your iPod?
“My record collection has a lot of old stuff: Furry Lewis and Mississippi John Hurt. But I also keep up with current stuff. Jack White’s new album is off the chain, and lately I’ve been getting into Kurt Vile.”

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