By Kenny Berkowitz
Luther Dickinson has spent years rocking loud and hard with the North Mississippi Allstars, the Black Crowes, and the Word. But at heart, he’s an acoustic guitarist, and on the new Blues & Ballads: A Folksinger’s Songbook, Volumes I & II (New West), he’s taken songs from his catalog, re-recorded them as folk songs, and turned his back pages into a celebration of community and family, including his father, legendary producer Jim Dickinson.
Why did you turn to acoustic guitar on the latest album?
That’s what my home is filled with, that’s what I write on. Acoustic guitar is at the core of what
I love, and when I’m playing electric, my whole style is about having an electric guitar respond like an acoustic—just loud as hell. I wanted to reinterpret these songs in a solo guitar or small combo way, because that’s my favorite art form, be it Jimmie Rodgers or Robert Johnson or Fred McDowell. It’s a whole universe, a whole orchestra right there. I wanted to recreate my music like that, and I wanted an excuse to make a songbook.
I grew up studying hymnals, listening to my grandmother play piano. Even before I could decode the pages, I could tell that there was a logical system where the melody went up and down and the words followed. I was this little, bitty boy, and she taught me the basics of reading music, nursery rhymes, Christmas carols. Most of what I know about melody and harmony I learned from my grandmother. She instilled that in me.
And your father?
Playing music and making records, that was our fellowship. I would bring songs to him and he would help me. Being a young kid, the songs I brought him would be a mess. And he taught me how to straighten them out, tighten them up, make sure every word was as powerful as it could be. We did that for so many years—now that he’s gone, I just do it naturally. It’s like still collaborating with him.
What’s a song he had an impact on?
“Bang Bang Lulu”—he added verses to that. “Moonshine”—he added a line to that. “Hurry Up Sunrise”—the lyrics come from Otha Turner.We would sit on his porch and hang out and jam. He would improvise lyrics, and I cobbled [“Hurry Up Sunrise”] together, brought it to my father. He recognized it as a duet, which is what outside influence is all about, because if you’re too close to something, it can be hard to see.
What makes these folks songs?
It’s an interpretation. These are songs I wrote about my life, my friends, my family. I was celebrating my experiences and their experiences, and to me, that’s what folk music is. Like Stagger Lee, Casey Jones, John Henry. Once upon a time, those were just guys roaming the Earth, but now they’re folk heroes. I decided to write songs to make my community into folk heroes, too.
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What do your kids think of these songs?
My daughter, she’s six, she loves them. She busts my balls, too, asking, “What does that mean?”
What do you say?
I try to explain, “This is a love song.” Or “This is when your grandfather passed away.”
What do you want to give them with this album?
I have a one-and-a-half-year old, too, and in my absence, they truly enjoy listening to my music. I just hope it keeps them company, keeps them happy.