North Mississippi Allstars

A forgotten roll of film inspired a musical accompaniment, the North Mississippi Allstars’ new record Up and Rolling. Shot before the turn of the century, the photographs resonate with the music of four families from the Mississippi hills. The album captures the communal spirit upon which the band was founded.

In 1996, a photographer from Texas, Wyatt McSpadden, traveled to North Mississippi looking to photograph local musicians. Brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson had grown up just south of Memphis and cut their teeth playing experimental rock & roll together, as well as the roots repertoire pioneered by their father, Jim Dickinson, a legendary producer (Big Star, the Replacements) and session player (Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan). Their feet were firmly planted in the North Mississippi mud and music scene, and they were excited to show Wyatt around their community, to introduce him to the musical families of Otha Turner, RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough.

Their first stop was Otha Turner’s farm. Then in his late eighties, he was the last living fife and drum musician in the hills—“and a friend to all,” Luther exclaims. “He looked sharp that day, still in his Sunday best and ready for a good time.” They all sat together on Otha’s fabled front porch, which was something like a classroom for the elder Dickinson brother. The two would sit for hours, the kid playing guitar while the old man made up lyrics on the spot. That’s how “Call That Gone” came into the world, decades before the Allstars recorded it for Up and Rolling.

After Otha treated Wyatt to an impromptu concert featuring his family band of drummers, the fife player sent them down to Junior Kimbrough’s nightclub. They crossed the county line to see Junior and his Soul Blues Boys perform electrified, multigenerational cotton patch blues in their own unique style. Later that evening RL Burnside showed up, took the bandstand with beer in hand, and proceeded to tear the house down. “Wyatt was so smooth nobody felt he was taking photos,” Luther recalls. “No one was self-conscious or posing. Wyatt had a cloak of invisibility.”

Once the Peavey amps were turned off and the jukebox unplugged, Cody and Luther parted ways with the Texan. Wyatt shared a handful of the images with Otha and the Dickinsons but no one saw the remaining photographs for decades. Wyatt’s images were forgotten. The Dickinsons had other matters demanding their attention—namely, a new band they envisioned as a loose collective of local musicians who would play the community’s repertoire.

A month after Wyatt took those photos, the North Mississippi Allstars made their Memphis debut, incorporating their father’s concept of roots music as a framework for improvisation and blending experimental/psychedelic excursions into Hill Country anthems. As Luther tells it, “after NMA first shook em’ down in Memphis, RL Burnside hired me to tour with him in ’97. A natural momentum began building up that slowly led to Cody and I hitting the road full-time. Our lives changed forever with the release of Shake Hands with Shorty in 2000. The music that rings thru the hills carried us away and became our home away from home as we began touring around the world. In orbit, we lost track of time and of ourselves.”

Shake Hands with Shorty made the Allstars one of the most celebrated roots acts around. In 23 years they’ve released ten studio albums, three of which were nominated for Blues Album of the Year Grammys. (Luther has notched another four nominations in various categories on top of that.) More important, they’ve played countless shows in front of avid crowds, touring alongside Robert Plant, Patty Griffin, Mavis Staples, and John Hiatt, among many others. Says Luther, “I’m grateful to work together as a family—with Cody, the musicians we roll with and the people who support our live shows. Together, we keep this music up and rolling.”