By Jim Hynes
“I write all of my songs on the acoustic guitar, even those North Mississippi Allstars songs. So, this comes naturally to me”, said Luther Dickinson. The “this” in question is Southern Soul Assembly (SSA), Dickinson’s all-acoustic tour with fellow southern blues-rock luminaries JJ Grey, Anders Osborne and Marc Broussard. Throughout their first tour this spring, the chemistry between the four was stronger than any of them expected—as was the audience response. Thus, SSA’s second tour begins today.
The idea for SSA began with Grey’s manager, who knew that Grey had always wanted to do an artist-in-the-round type of concept. As for the artists’ shared southern heritage, “It just kind of fell out that way,” Grey said (Osborne, originally from Sweden, has called New Orleans home for about 30 years). “I wanted to get together guys I knew and that was true for Luther and Anders. I wasn’t as familiar with Marc but he’s absolutely one of the best voices out there. I was just really impressed and surprised at what a good songwriter he is.
Furthermore, Grey believes that Dickinson, while one of his favorite guitar players, does not get nearly enough accolades for his singing. According to Grey, “Luther sings three notes and you know who it is. He has a real honest way of singing that reminds you of the old classics.”
“Once it came to be the four of us,” Grey said. “We did have lots in common so we thought it made sense to highlight the southern songwriter aspect…You know it’s pretty amazing, because all of us have pretty solid solo careers yet there are no delusions of grandeur and no prima donnas. All three of these guys were cool from the first time I met them.”
Dickinson has learned some valuable lessons in following Grey’s positive lead. According to Dickinson, “He taught me to not even entertain the slightest thought of negativity. Sarcasm doesn’t translate. Dark humor doesn’t translate on stage. Instead this is about sharing our talents, conveying the passion we all have for writing, singing and entertaining. We are four southern singers with very different styles creating a human experience. This is soulful, funky and not loud but you can both dance or relax to the music.”
Dickinson likewise calls Osborne a “beacon,” and although Osborne was noted mostly as a guitarist and songwriter, each SSA member praised the soulful, heartfelt quality of his vocals. All four artists’ respect for each other is so remarkable that SSA has transcended its basic concept. This is a tour that each member is truly looking forward to and to which each member is totally open in terms of spontaneity and ingenuity.
To see SSA’s easygoing chemistry in action, check out their full performance from March’s Suwannee Springfest. The artist-in-the-round format sees each artist taking a turn, while the others strum acoustically or join in singing the choruses. The four take the stage without any real rehearsing or any set lists. Their ability to quickly pick up on the song is due in part to their roles as producers—a producer by definition needs to be a good listener.
Osborne has talked about adding a drummer and bass player into this mix while Broussard indicated that both Osborne and Grey have expressed interest in drumming themselves. There’s also the question of whether the show will go electric. “It could happen. You never know,” Grey said. “But, if it got too electric it might sound too much like our regular stuff. This way it’s kind of like the four of us sitting on a porch playing and the audience is sitting right on that porch with us. That’s a nice feeling and one worth keeping.”
But no matter what evolves in terms of future live shows or what seems to be an inevitable record, Grey, Dickinson, Osborne and Broussard have every intention of keeping the quartet intact. In addition to being a nice break from the norm and a source of inspiration, SSA is an opportunity to try out new songs and see what kind of reaction they get.
The overall reaction is that fans of each individual artist attend these shows and then walk away with an appreciation for the unfamiliar, for the group as a whole. While each of these artists has been doing their own material, don’t rule out some collaborative songwriting for this fall tour—in fact, it’s already started on the bus. “We’re going to ride this train as long as we can,” Broussard said. Climb aboard.