By Michael Lester
Guitarist Luther Dickinson’s late father Jim Dickinson, a legendary record producer who played keyboards on Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan albums, tried to talk Luther out of playing guitar when Luther was a kid.
“I started playing real hard when I was 12. He discouraged me for a long time,” Luther recalled during a recent phone interview from his Mississippi home.
“He said it’s a hard life. Guitar didn’t come naturally to me. I wanted to do it, but it was hard. I wasn’t a natural. Cody (his younger, drum-playing brother) was a natural. At every instrument he tried.”
Three decades and three Grammy nominations later, Rolling Stone magazine thought enough of Luther’s hard-charging brand of country blues guitar that the publication appointed him to a 2011 panel of over 50 judges, which included ax legends Carlos Santana, Trey Anastasio, Eddie Van Halen and Mick Taylor of the Stones, to decide the top 100 guitarists of all time.
(Somewhat surprisingly, neither Anastasio nor Dickinson, who spent a four-year stint as lead guitarist with the Black Crowes, made the cut.)
Luther, 41, and Cody, 38, and their North Mississippi Allstars trio, who have toured in recent years with Robert Plant, stop at the 1,200-seat Weis Center for Performing Arts at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., Friday, Sept. 26, during their upcoming fall tour.
Thanks to their father, who died in 2009 at the age of 67, the Dickinson brothers grew up in a musically nurturing environment, jamming at Mississippi juke joints with Delta blues royalty like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Otha Turner, whose music dated to the early 1900s.
The Dickinsons’ musical influences extend to more mainstream artists as well.
Luther, who considers Jimi Hendrix his favorite guitarist of all time, recalled a visit Bob Dylan paid to the Dickinsons’ Mississippi family homestead and recording studio, Zebra Ranch, while Dylan was out on the road promoting his 1997 “Time out of Mind” album.
Jim Dickinson was a session pianist who played on that album. He was also pianist on the Stones’ “Wild Horses.”
Jim wasn’t involved with Dylan’s touring band for the album. Dylan nonetheless made a pit stop at Zebra Ranch during his tour.
Asked his specific memories of that visit, Luther recalled being in awe. He also remembers the folky troubadour firing some quirky questions at the Dickinsons’ mother Mary, who still lives at Zebra Ranch.
“He was looking around. He was asking my mom what kind of bugs we had, what are the native insects,” said Luther, the father of two young daughters, 4 and 3 months, with wife Necha.
“I remember that conversation. It was cool.”
In their 18th year, NMAS has three Grammy nominations to their credit in the blues album category, the first of which was for 2000’s “Shake Hands with Shorty,” the trio’s debut album that first gained the band some national traction.
“It’s always a thrill to get nominated,” Luther acknowledged. “You just can’t help to be thrilled. It’s a fun party.”
Much to the disappointment of NMAS loyalists, Chew no longer tours regularly with the band.
Chew took a “friendly hiatus” from the band in the summer of 2012 after he was stricken with a diabetic coma.
The Dickinsons asked Chew to join them on the road this fall, but Chew politely declined.
Chew, who works full-time as a truck driver, will however team up with Luther and Cody for upcoming dates with their gospel-blues supergroup, The Word, which includes pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph and keyboardist John Medeski.
“It’s cool, man,” Luther said of Chew’s decision to turn down the NMAS tour. “He’s happy. He’s doing good. I don’t blame him. Playing Hill Country blues is not a full-time job. Chris has two daughters like me.
“He’s the sweetest dude. He’s so well loved. Everybody misses him.”
Luther and Cody instead recruited Missouri native Lightnin’ Malcolm, who is in his late 30s, for the job of playing bass this tour.
“Man, I met him at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint (Junior’s Place in Chulahoma, Miss.),” Luther explained. “I admire him so much. He’s such a great, amazing force in Hill Country blues. He’s totally different (than Chew). Chew is more gospel and soul.
“Malcolm is straight hard blues. He’s made it less jammy, even though we still improvise. It’s less jammy and more dance-oriented. He lays it down.”
NMAS recently completed an international tour as the opening act for Robert Plant and his latest collaborating band, the Sensational Space Shifters.
Plant invited Luther and Cody to be his two-man openers for the former Led Zeppelin front man’s 15-show Band of Joy tour in North America back in 2011.
“We opened up for him in Memphis, and he kept hiring us,” Luther said with a laugh. “We’re happy to do anything he asks. He took us all over the world — Russia, the Ukraine and Lithuania.
“He’s hard working. Really smart. He’s really adventurous and ambitious, always pushing the music. It’s like working with Phil Lesh (of the Grateful Dead). God, man, these guys work so hard. It’s an inspiration. I work hard, but not compared to these dudes.”
Later this fall, Luther will return to the road in the western U.S. for a second go-around as a member of the newly formed Southern Soul Assembly, an acoustic, singer-guitarist collaboration with JJ Grey, Anders Osborne and Marc Broussard.
Touring with that foursome this past spring, Luther introduced on stage some of the material from his recently released acoustic guitar-inspired autobiographical solo album, “Rock ’n Roll Blues.”
“JJ invited me on that tour,” Luther said of Southern Soul. “It really worked good for my solo record. It’s a great opportunity to play those tunes. I met JJ when he was on his first tour. We’ve been friends a long time. We’ve always seen eye to eye.
“The only hard thing was following those dudes (on stage). I was like, ‘I can’t follow what Anders just played.’ No matter how much you plan ahead for those shows, it keeps evolving because of what the cat before you played.”
Comments like these reveal a refreshing level of humility. And those who have had a chance to randomly meet Luther on the road will vouch for him being more approachable than most rock stars.
“You know what my trip is? I respect the fans to no end,” Luther says. “I always really try to stay in the routine and be at the top of my game. I respect the fans so much. Without them, we couldn’t do this tour thing.
“As far as one on one, you meet so many people. I’m always totally open and positive when I meet (fans). They only get one chance. If you give off one ounce of negativity, it’s done. I’m not gonna waste my time on negativity. If you don’t come correct, I’m done.”
North Mississippi All Stars perform Friday, Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Bucknell University’s Weis Center. Tickets: http://www.bucknell.edu/x93997.xml