Born January 18, 1973 in Memphis and raised in Mississippi, Luther Dickinson was also born and raised in music. Luther’s father, James Luther (Jim) Dickinson, played on and produced some of the greatest records of the era, including the Stones’ “Wild Horses” and Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. Besides their father’s music, Luther and younger brother Cody could hear music coming from the honky tonk and the church that sandwiched their childhood home. There, in the North Mississippi hills, Luther learned from famed guitarists like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and fife legend Otha Turner.
The young Luther recorded with the likes of the Replacements in his father’s Zebra Ranch studio while forging a career of his own. After other early projects with Cody, the first North Mississippi Allstars lineup assembled in ’96. They became regulars on the Memphis scene before recording their 2000 debut, Shake Hands With Shorty, at Zebra Ranch. Following a Grammy nomination, more albums and work with their supergroup, the Word (with John Medeski and Robert Randolph), they played Bonnaroo in 2004, a show which included R.L. Burnside’s official retirement performance and a tribute to the passing of Otha Turner.
With father Jim producing, the Allstars then began recording Electric Blue Watermelon. Touring and recording with John Hiatt, Luther also took over as lead guitarist in the Black Crowes, keeping the Allstars out of the studio until Hernando (named for their hometown), in 2008. The following year, Jim Dickinson died, and the Allstars gathered at Zebra Ranch to record a tribute to him, Keys to the Kingdom.
Today, with the Crowes on hiatus, Luther plays with the Allstars, and as a duo with Cody in the aptly named Duo LuCo. Luther says, “We’re keeping the faith. As of now, we don’t have a new record to push so I’m real curious to see what we come up with next year. I always get in trouble talking about that kind of thing, but I’ve dropped little hints all through the conversation.” Guesses, anyone?
The elder Everly Brother, Don was born on February 1, 1937 in Powderly, Kentucky, and raised in Shenandoah, Iowa. Sons of guitarist Ike Everly, Don and brother Phil debuted on their father’s radio program, and the three somewhat precariously pursued music careers, at one time briefly becoming barbers. Ike has since been immortalized in the Four Legends Fountain in Drakesboro, Kentucky, and the Everly Brothers made it to the Rock Hall in the first round.
The brothers’ first attempt at a recording career almost ended when their first single (“Keep A’ Lovin’ Me”) flopped. They didn’t give up, and in 1957 they recorded their landmark “Bye Bye Love,” along with remarkable hits like “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Wake Up Little Susie” and “(’Til) I Kissed You” on Cadence. In 1960, they were signed by the then-new Warner Bros. label, where they released smash hits like “Walk Right Back.” However, the Everly Brothers’ first single for Warner, “Cathy’s Clown,” was followed by changes in their personal lives. Don and Phil enlisted into the Marine Corps together, studied acting for six months, and, like so many in the ’60s, suffered from drug problems. Their contract with Warner would lapse by 1970, and Don released his first solo album later that year. By 1973, the brothers went their separate ways.
The Everly Brothers’ exquisite two-part harmonies lived on to influence the burgeoning rock scene, a mark that endures today. The Beatles, the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel and many others cite the Everlys as a primary influence. “It wasn’t just our harmonies,” Don pointed out. “Duets weren’t really supposed to be in music—we had to be one of the first. Everybody had their harmony singers, but they were part of the band. To have a brother act was new.”
Don enjoyed success on the country charts with the Dead Cowboys in the ’70s. In 1986, the duo was among the first class inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Don recalls, “I got the telegram that said we’d be starting the Rock Hall with all of these bands that I’m a big fan of, and I said, ‘Is this a joke?’ I thought he was kidding me. It was a great honor to be inducted with the crowd I went in with, and I loved it…I have people that come up to me and say, ‘The Everly Brothers were big influences, and we like your music.’ I really like that, when they comment about your work. Today, I’m happy and doing fine.”
What are you listening to right now?
Luther Dickinson: The Georgia Sea Islands Singers, a group of singers from Georgia that Alan Lomax recorded in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. It’s like percussion and vocals, and just the most amazing music. It’s my favorite stuff. Other groups branched out so it was a community of singers. A family still carries it on, but I listen to the old stuff. Cody turned me on to it. I’ve also been listening to more female singers than I ever have before, like Florence + the Machine.
Don Everly: I listen to the music in the car. I have CDs in there too, but I switch between WSM, the country music station, and NPR. I’m really interested in radio—my father had a radio show in Chicago. I have machines that tape both sides from years ago. I had a tough time getting tape, and they finally started getting it for me at Radio Shack. I tape Garrison Keillor every week—I think he is a treasure of our time. He’s like Mark Twain.
What was the first record you ever bought?
LD: It was actually a cassette, Van Halen’s Women and Children First, when I was in the third grade. My dad thought it was pretty cool. He and his friends hooked me up with some Jimi Hendrix and AC/DC before that. Some friends of his gave me a stack and said, “Oh, you’re going to like Jimi Hendrix,” and they were right. We just did the Hendrix Experience tour. That was so much fun. Hendrix is my favorite.
DE: In the days of going to a record store, you’d go listen to it in the booth, but I didn’t buy it, I don’t think I had the money. I would have bought Bo Diddley. I was blown away by happiness, Bo Diddley sounded so wonderful. But I also said, “I’ll never be happy with music again.” I was singing country music on radio then, and I thought, “How in the world can I be a Bo Diddley?”
Where do you buy your music?
LD: I collect vinyl and buy a lot of iTunes music. I don’t even keep CDs in the house. I just don’t like anything about them. It’s sad that music went to that medium, but I love vinyl. I buy a lot on eBay, and go to record stores a lot. I’ve got one wall full and I keep it there. Every time I work some in, some have to go out.
DE: I haven’t bought anything in awhile. I have to replace my records; they get lost or something. I put them in big carry things on the road and I moved around a lot.
What was the first instrument you played?
LD: We had little baby drums, both of us, but I had a plastic guitar. I always knew I wanted to play guitar. I think it was just watching my dad and his friends. It’s just always been my calling. After the plastic guitar, I had a little baby Strat, and just started acquiring guitars for different places. I’ve got a bunch for the Black Crowes; I’ve got a bunch for the Allstars; I’ve got acoustics for the string band.
DE: That little flute they taught you in school, but I was learning guitar by then.
What brought you to the instrument you now play?
LD: My dad was a piano player, but he’d sit around and play guitar. I always admired his guitar-playing partners: Ry Cooder, Charlie Freeman and Lee Baker. Maybe it was a little of a rebellious thing…nah, I never was that rebellious. I just never had a choice.
I was not naturally talented. Cody was. Cody could play any instrument even as a young kid. My playing is different in different situations, with the Allstars, with my dad, Mavis Staples or Medeski and Robert Randolph. I read a Keith Richards thing a while ago that helped me my whole life. He said, What you look for in a second guitar player is sympathy. I took that to heart. Dad told me, “If John Hiatt is singing, don’t play. Stay out of the vocalist’s way.”
DE: I was born in a coal mining camp, the Brownie Coal Mines. My father didn’t want us to work the mines, and he finally got out of the mines workin’ lead guitar. He taught me what I know on guitar.
My father had a radio show and played guitar. He went from Chicago to Shenandoah, Iowa, and needed a rhythm player. I was seven or eight, and he taught me chords and I’d play along and he’d play lead. He paid me $5 a week. I was left-handed and my father said, “You gotta learn it right handed. They’ll call you lefty otherwise.” So I play right, but I’m left-handed. Everything else, I’m totally left-handed. It’s a screwed up world for left-handed people.
Who would you like to write with that you haven’t?
LD: That’s a huge list. I like collaborating. Can I just throw off some names? Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. They are amazing. I’d like to work with Jack White. Mavis Staples is one of my favorite all-time collaborators. I’ve been hanging out with Buddy Miller and Patti Griffin on the Robert Plant tour—let’s include that whole team.
DE: Well, you know, I really don’t write too much with people, it’s a hard thing to do. I come up with an idea and it’ll just hit me and I’ll write it and that’ll be about the end of it. The only things I’ve written about lately are my two poodles.
What musician influenced you most?
LD: My dad. He was just such a champion of southern roots music, and his record collection, his taste and his aesthetic were all such a huge influence on me. I’ve traversed in and out of the parameters of those things and explored my own things, but that’s always given me a home base I can always come back to.
DE: Chet Atkins. I learned to play guitar, and we used to do pickabilly stuff. You gotta practice that stuff every day. In ’53, he came to where I was going to school, and my dad went to the back gate and said, “I have two boys here, one of them’s writing songs,” and Chet gave us his number and told him, “If they come to Nashville, have them call me.” So when we got the next available time off, my brother, my mother and I went to Nashville, got a motel room and called up Chet. He says, “Just come on down.” We went to the house and I sang him some of my songs, and he pointed at “Thou Shalt Not Steal” and said, “If you make that a little longer and put a bridge in it…” He showed me how. Later, back in Knoxville, a letter came from Chet saying, “Kitty Wells has recorded your number.” I wasn’t impressed with her singing, but I liked it that somebody had recorded my song.
What was the song or event that made you realize you wanted to be in music?
LD: When I got my driver’s license at 16 my dad was like, “Alright, you’ve got access to a car, a guitar and an amp. Go and do it. I know you don’t want to get a job. Go hustle.” And I’ve been doing that ever since. Every side project I’ve ever done, everything, it’s just a hustle.
Doing this for the rest of my life is something you deal with every day, the fear about supporting your family. Believe me, you do not get rich playing this game. It’s such a brutal system, the percentages taken off the top and the expenses are high. It’s fucking expensive. I have friends who work in the studio or in bars that make just as good a living as I do.
There’s a very small percentage of very successful people. I am completely super cool with under-the-radar, underground, marginal success. I represent unpopular roots music. I don’t like popular music and I never have. And if I did succeed at that I would probably be uncomfortable with it. There’s a freedom being under the radar, and I’m very fortunate to be doing what I love. I can always get that job at FedEx if I have to.
DE: I never thought of doing anything else. I was singing since I was a little baby . My father had a recording of me when I was 4, 5 or 6 maybe, singing “Paper Doll.” He made a tape of it, like the soldiers did to send records home.
I wanted to be like Hank Williams on the radio. We worked on the radio for a long while, and when we got fired in ’55 or ’54, my mother and father had both saw it comin’ and got us into barbering school.
When I came to Nashville, I had to audition and it was all “No, no, no,” and then we got a job working with Bill Monroe on a tent show. Phil and I were making $90 a week apiece, twice what we made as the whole Everly Family. We had one record on Columbia that didn’t do anything and then we cut “Bye Bye Love.”
When Webb Pierce covered me, I thought it would be the end of me. I called up Archie Bleyer in New York and said, “Something terrible’s happened, Webb Pierce has covered us.” And he said, “Who’s Webb Pierce?” He said, “Don’t worry about it, you’re going pop!” And we made number one country anyway.
Who would you like in your rock ‘n’ roll heaven band?
LD: You’d definitely start with Levon Helm. We’d probably need a second drummer too, so I think Charlie Watts could sit in pretty well. I really like upright bass, so Charlie Mingus on the upright bass. On keyboards, Spooner and my father. How are you going to get some guitar players to work together? Let’s put Dylan on guitar, and Duane Allman, who knows how to keep a band together. Of course you’ve got to have Elvis and Mavis singing. You could do like psychedelic gospel. For horns, you’ve got to go with Bobby Keys. He is the man. Charlie Musselwhite on harp. I’ll play the mandolin.
DE: Chet Atkins would be number one and Buddy Emmons on steel, of course. Drums, Larrie Londin—we had him for a long while, and Buddy Harman was a good one too. I had a really good band when I quit working with Phil. We broke up; we didn’t really quit. Phil Cranham played electric bass. I would never turn Paul McCartney down. He wrote a song for us, “On the Wings of a Nightingale.” I’d like to be the vocalist of course and then I would have whoever I wanted. Paul Simon came through town the other day and he asked me to come down to the show and we sang “Bye Bye Love.” He did great. I wish I had a tape of that show, believe me.
What’s your desert island CD?
LD: The Alan Lomax Sounds of the South compilation that he recorded for Atlantic in the late ’50s. He discovered fife and drum, he discovered Fred McDowell, white music, black music, the core. That is the core of my father’s record collection that formed what I love. My favorite sounds in the world: two microphones and a tape machine.
DE: It would be the Beatles, the one with “Here Comes the Sun.” In the ’60s, I loved the music they were doing. I thought George Harrison was a brilliant songwriter. I ran across him in Australia and I asked him to sing me “Here Comes the Sun,” and he sang it for me and it was just marvelous.