Luther Dickinson says there’s no telling what will happen on stage with the Southern Soul Assembly, the intimate gang of buddies Anders Osborne, Marc Broussard, JJ Grey and himself.
“The funny thing is, it’s truly an adventure, a gig where you may think you know what you’re going to play but what the cats before you play might completely be a game changer. Sometimes you got to keep the mood. Sometimes you got to break the mood. Sometimes themes develop where we’ll each do a song about our grandmothers or a song about our family or a song about death. It’s really fun. It’s an amazing group of fellows.”
Those fellows first got together in 2014 at the invitation of Grey. For Dickinson, it’s an opportunity he embraces.
He plays plenty of loud rock and roll as a self-professed psychedelic folk rocker and member of The North Mississippi Allstars. He says you can’t expect rock audiences to be quiet. At Southern Soul Assembly shows, that’s just what they do.
“It’s totally a dream come true for me,” he adds during a Friday afternoon call. “I love intimate, seated and acoustic performances. As a songwriter and folk musician, I just love it.”
The four friends bring their show to The Sandler Center for Performing Arts on Wednesday, March 15 as part of a month-long tour. For Dickinson, it’s a rare chance to hang out with other songwriters on the road. “A month in close quarters with three guys with similar experience is really inspiring and educational,” he says. “We talk about strategies and ideas and brainstorm.”
One night, you might hear Osborne debut a new song. You’ll certainly hear a few stories. With Osborne and Broussard you get two different sides of the New Orleans sound, bluesy and soulful. Dickinson brings that broad Memphis influence. And Grey lends his soul, funk, blues amalgam via Jacksonville, Florida.
They rehearse — at sound check. That’s it. “The shows are so unpredictable we usually never play what we rehearse,” he adds.
The guys don’t just swap songs. They support each other. Grey will play some harmonica. Osborne lends his signature guitar parts. Dickinson might pick up a bass or mandolin.
He also admits that sometimes it’s a little intimidating. “There’s some really strong songwriting going on. Some really strong singing going on,” he says. “Sometimes I just have to resort to playing my guitar.”
Playing guitar is something he’s done since he was a child, first lending his tone playing on The Replacements “Pleased to Meet Me” as a 14-year-old.
He’s better known as the singer and guitarist in North Mississippi Allstars who grew up in Memphis and later in the hill country south of town as the son of legendary producer and pianist Jim Dickinson,
He and his brother, drummer Cody Dickinson, are part of North Mississippi Allstars. They grew up in the blues lands of Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. But they also were part of that Memphis rock sound of the 1960s.
Their father, who died in 2009, released solo records and played with bands backing Aretha Franklin, Dion, Sam & Dave, Jerry Jeff Walker and others. He famously played piano on The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and later produced artists as varied as Big Star, Toots and the Maytals, The Replacements, Willy DeVille and others.
Luther says his most recent album, the stripped-down “Blues & Ballads: A Folksinger’s Songbook: Volumes I & II,” and the fun of their original 2014 tour fed off each other. Since his father died, he notes that his solo career has largely focused on acoustic playing. Indeed, “Blues & Ballads,” one of last year’s best records, opens sounding like a couple of players sitting on a front porch and moves over time into a late-night blues groove. It’s intimate, a record that makes you want to lean in.
“That record and those performances teach me that the more humbly and more honestly things are recorded or presented, the more they move people,” he says. “We’re making roots music of one sort or another. Over production in the recording studio or live can be detrimental to the visceral, emotional response.”
That’s exactly opposite from the way his father made records. “He was an expert at colorful production, heavy-handed. Each song had its own identity,” Dickinson notes.
For Dickinson, things changed thanks to conversations with Buddy Miller, the Nashville songwriter and producer. Miller told him he did not overdub. “Get everybody in the room and record in the moment,” he told Dickinson. “If you need singers, call and wait. Tune up the banjo. Wait for the horns. Get everybody together. For the singer, that’s the commitment.”
He notes that recording budgets today are so tiny, you have to make records fast. “The market demands the records be honest and made quickly and the people who still like records seem to like that kind of recording,” he adds.
Dickinson calls himself a descendant of the second generation of Memphis, the rock and roll Memphis sound. “Rock and roll, that’s where I start,” he says, adding that he grew up on Delta Blues and Chicago blues.
Like his father, Dickinson has played with a wide array of artists including The Black Crowes, John Hiatt and The South Memphis String Band.
He demurs when asked how those experiences have shaped his sound. “The funny thing is I play different with Mavis (Staples who sings on his recent disc) than I play with (Charlie) Musselwhite than I play with Hiatt,” he says. “I’m all about supporting the vocals. I love playing guitar. I love playing rock and roll. You really need a transcendental vocalist to take it to another level. I love working with singers like that.”
Dickinson played with Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead last year and it left a lasting impression, one it sounds like he’ll bring to the Southern Soul Assembly shows.
“He is so in the moment. He just goes right to the vein. I think that’s what matters. It doesn’t matter what song you’re singing or where you are if you can just get inside the moment and ignite that spark, the room feels it. That’s what everybody really wants.”