Album Reviews

Luther Dickinson

Blues & Ballads: A Folksinger’s Songbook Volumes I & II

Artist:     Luther Dickinson

Album:     Blues & Ballads: A Folksinger's Songbook Volumes I & II

Label:     New West Records

Release Date:     02/05/2016


As much as anything, this project is an extension of Luther’s Onward and Upward from 2009a heartfelt gospel and blues homage to his father, James Luther Dickinson, which was recorded mostly with a group of friends only three days after his dad’s passing. The new Blues & Ballads’ 21 tracks are also mostly acoustic and almost just as casual, featuring primarily Dickinson’s voice and guitar, with support from Amy LaVere on bass and Sharde Thomas on drums, fife and vocals. The affable Dickinson has plenty of friends who join on select tracks, including as Jason Isbell, J.J. Grey, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Jimbo Mathus, Lillie Me Rausch, and Charles Hodges. The centerpiece and inspiration of the album is Dickinson’s duet with Mavis Staples on “Ain’t No Grave,” written for Luther’s dad and on the North Mississippi Allstars’ 2011 album Keys to the Kingdom. It is one of several tunes that have been reworked into this raw, acoustic format. Dickinson takes this opportunity to both reflect on his many influences—growing up in a richly musical family and location—and to look forward as he reinvents some of these tunes by stringing together a number of ideas from songbooks and notebooks that he has kept since he was a youngster.  The passion and joy in his playing is vividly present.

The strains of influence from iconic fife man Otha Turner (Sharde Thomas is Turner’s granddaughter), Luther’s own piano-playing grandmother, his dad, and so many of his North Mississippi musician friends resound. Luther expounds of the project this way, “My whole life, my dad really helped teach me how to craft songs. I’d bring in these rough songs and we’d demo them up and record them. He would always go through them and make sure the syllable count added up and the rhymes were traditional. He taught me the importance of getting the most out of every word, making every word as strong as it could be. Now that he’s gone, I still work on songs using what he taught me. We’re still working together, because he taught me how to do it. The collaboration lives on… When you put all these songs together, they tell my story, and my family’s story.”

From the title alone (Volumes I & II), you clearly get the sense that Luther has plenty more of these tunes to present in the future. This, like his other projects such as South Memphis String Band, and those of Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart are not for the masses, but are treasures for those who want to dig deeper into the vast well of Southern music. Luther sees this music as vital. It will always be there, and it is the artist’s responsibility to breathe new life into it. Often the term “roots music” is used too loosely. Make no mistake; this is the real stuff.

—Jim Hynes

Got something to say?