Hill Country Hoodoo

In the mythology of both the Delta blues and Western religion, "Idle hands are the devil's tools." If that's the case, then Luther Dickinson must really want to stay away from Satan.

First, the Mississippi-based singer/songwriter/guitarist fronts blues/jam band The North Mississippi Allstars. Then he was named permanent new lead guitarist for the Black Crowes, joining in time for the Warpaint sessions and subsequent tour.

Now Dickinson and his longtime friends, bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart and ex-Squirrel Nut Zippers leader Jimbo Mathus, have formed the acoustic act South Memphis String Band. The trio has no record deal and no tracks laid down, but has embarked on a tour to help them gel as a unit. Saturday's show at the Continental Club will be only the SMSB's third official show.

The Houston Press recently spoke with Dickinson about all three bands, his love for Billy Gibbons and which member can't get by without the reefer.

Houston Press: So, how did the String Band start? Did you have a free afternoon with nothing on the agenda?

Luther Dickinson: We're just such good friends and I had a block of time off. I don't know what my problem is — it's better to crank something up than stay on the side of the road! Even when I'm at home, I'm writing or in the studio. I feel so blessed to be able to make a living at what I love. It's more than just a profession. For me, it's family and music — and that's it.

HP: How long have you known Alvin and Jimbo?

LD: We've been playing on each other's records and shows for years. Last year in January, for my 35th birthday, I threw a party that was also a recording session. We had [harmonica legend] Charlie Musselwhite, my dad [producer and pianist Jim Dickinson], the Allstars, Jimbo and Alvin.

We made a hardcore groove record, about 20 numbers. And we called ourselves the New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers. We have two of those songs from that session on our MySpace page.

HP: And then starting the String Band with those two?

LD: We share so much of the same taste, and I always wanted to do an acoustic thing, so it just seemed natural. Alvin instigated the whole thing. The original concept of the Allstars was to electrify acoustic country blues like Mississippi Fred McDowell or R.L. Burnside. Then it turned into a blues rock and roll band.

Acoustic is just another whole genre. Those guys know so many great songs, so we're just going to take turns playing tunes. We haven't even recorded anything yet! So we'll have guitars, mandolins, banjos and dobros on stage.

HP: What can you tell me about Alvin's personality that might surprise even his biggest fan?

LD: In my mind, he's the best acoustic bluesman on the planet — but all he wants to do is rock! He's hilarious, one of the funniest cats you ever want to hang around. He can also fix anything. For the tour, we've been saying that I'll handle the business, Alvin will handle the driving and Jimbo's going to handle the drinking!

HP: Same question for Jimbo.

LD: He's such a special cat. My dad calls him the modern-day Huck Finn. He's such a great songwriter and producer in the long tradition of crazy white boys from Mississippi and Memphis like Jimmie Rodgers and Elvis. He took that Dixieland and jazz [with the Zippers] and really made it his own.

HP: But what about his personality?

LD: Jimbo...man, I don't know. I know he has a great love for drinking beer and smoking pot!

HP: The pioneering acoustic bluesmen from the Delta region have such a mystique about them, whether it's Robert Johnson's deal with the devil or Charley Patton playing guitar behind his head and writhing on the floor. Do these tales sometimes overshadow the music?

LD: I don't know. Back then, the only way you got known as a performer was through word of mouth. There was no newspaper going to write about them and they weren't going to get played on the radio, so it was necessary for them to become larger-than-life characters. They were working all the angles.

HP: Any particular thoughts or memories about Houston?

LD: Oh, man. You know, if it's Houston, you got to feel the presence of ZZ Top! I saw them twice last year, and they were so good. Being in Houston for me is...man...it's the Reverend Billy Gibbons! We've had some great shows there, too. Last time, we played at a park with Mavis Staples and Charlie Musselwhite, and that was one of the best shows of the tour.

HP: What's in the Allstars' future?

LD: [Luther's brother and Allstars drummer/keyboardist/washtubber] Cody's band has a record coming out in May with his group, Hill Country Revue. I helped him out, but it's really his baby. R.L. Burnside's youngest son, Garry, wrote most of the material. And it's like my original vision for the Allstars. Hardcore Mississippi country blues and Hill Country rock and roll!

HP: I know that the Crowes just finished a recording session at [former Band drummer] Levon Helm's barn in Woodstock in front of a live audience. What was that like?

LD: It went great! They [Chris and Rich Robinson] had some great songs, and they're shooting to release a double disc of all new material recorded completely live, along with a film.

HP: So since you and Cody get along so well together, did you have any brotherly advice for the often-feuding Chris and Rich?

LD: Aw, hell no! (Laughs)

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero