Blues & Ballads: A Folksinger’s Songbook: Volumes I & II
New West Records
“What is the son but an extension of the father?”
That quote is of course true of all father and sons, but in the case of Luther Dickinson, whose father was the great producer (The Replacements, Big Star), piano player (“Wild Horses”) and southern songwriting legend Jim Dickinson, it’s more literal than most. Luther, who has played in The Black Crowes, North Mississippi Allstars, the South Memphis String Band and contributed to albums from John Hiatt, Willy DeVille, and more has carried his father’s legacy onward since the elder Dickinson’s death in 2009. His style is pure, Hill Country blues, and on his newest, Blues & Ballads he has assembled an album overstuffed with memorable moments and some highly regarded friends.
Opening with a song that Dickinson created from moments he spent with Otha Turner, the last of the Mississippi fife players, “Hurry Up Sunrise” sets the mood, reminding you of a front-porch jam session, with understated slide bursts from Dickinson. Next up is “Up Over Yonder” which features the vocals of JJ Grey and the guitar of Jason Isbell supporting the fingerpicked acoustic of Dickinson. The entire record has a relaxed, never hurried vibe to it, but within each song there’s an intensity, a sort of burning that makes you listen intently.
And no cut illustrates this more than Luther’s homage to his father, “Ain’t No Grave”, with the heart stopping duet vocals of Mavis Staples. Framed by subtle guitar and bass, their voices are at once sorrowful – and angelic- as the great Staple Singers moments with Mavis and her father, Pops Staples. During the slide guitar part you can hear Mavis softly humming in the background. Simply stunning.
If there’s any knock on the record, it’s that it’s TOO good- and too stuffed with music. At 21 cuts, there’s a saturation point that you reach, and even too much sugar gets tiring. But taken as a whole, this is a spellbinding collection of blues, folk music and spirituals. One suspects that Jim Dickinson would approve. Luther Dickinson is one of our most accomplished bluesmen, and Blues & Ballads certainly proves it.