Luther Dickinson,
Blues & Ballads
(New West, 2016)

Luther Dickinson is the son of the late Jim Dickinson, the revered musician and producer who was engaged with modern roots sounds well before "roots" became a popular buzzword. His son is usually associated with the North Mississippi Allstars, who have fused rock 'n' roll with raw hill-country blues.

Subtitled "A Folksinger's Songbook: Volumes I & II" (on one disc, though), Blues & Ballads is a collection of understated, mostly original songs highlighting not only Dickinson's talents but his immersion in grassroots Southern styles. Dickinson isn't exactly writing imitation folk songs and rural blues, but his songs wouldn't exist in this form without these models. You couldn't conjure up material like this, in short, if you're just another Americana poseur who knows more about other singer-songwriters than about the bluesmen and balladeers who carried the tradition over decades, sometimes centuries, in their voices and instruments. As he puts it in his "Ain't No Grave" (its title derived from a famous spiritual and performed with the great Mavis Staples), "I've heard the music of the spheres." Which is what traditional songs and tunes feel like if you know and love them enough.

Dickinson grew up knowing native Mississippi musicians, prominent among them the late Othar Turner, master of a disappearing Civil War-era tradition of fife and drum music fusing marches, folk and popular songs, and downhome blues. The opening cut, "Hurry Up Sunrise," sung with Turner's granddaughter Sharde Thomas (who also contributes drums and fife), is adapted from a Turner number, made up in good part of the kinds of verses that were improvised on the spot or that floated from song to song, to be employed in any context where they would be useful.

Describing it as his most "casual" album, Dickinson manages a generally low-key approach to the album's 21 cuts. There are occasional up-tempo pieces, including a raucous reading of the well-traveled bawdy song "Bang Bang Lulu" as well as the lustful original "Blow Out," concerning what a standard blues lyric likes to call "that same thing." Mostly, however, the songs feel meditative, close to the front porch and the Southern soil. Dickinson drops references and quotes from gospel, folk and blues tunes into the lyrics, not drawing particular attention to them but adding another layer of delight to the informed listener's hearing. Without being imitative, "Mayor Langford Birmingham Blues" pleasingly echoes classic songsters such as Sleepy John Estes and Furry Lewis. The meditative lament "Mojo, Mojo" nods to Blind Willie Johnson, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. "Ol' Cannonball" takes up the rich American tradition of the train song.

Even as he stays close to venerable vernacular approaches, Dickinson never sounds stale. That's not easy to do. The more immediate temptation is to radical reinvention and re-creation (not to mention full volume), which is not at all what Ballads & Blues is about. Dickinson and his bandmates, in fact, speak the language of folk music so fluently that no foreign accent betrays it. The result moves and satisfies and does not falter, a happy marriage of old-time musical styles and old-soul young musicians.

music review by
Jerome Clark

2 April 2016

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