Cody Dickinson: Making Mississippi Mud
“And the girls, man. At our show it’s all about the girls up front shaking it in our faces. You know what I’m saying, with the sexual tension? I’m so glad we’re not a heavy metal rap band where it’s a bunch of frat boys and jocks beating each other up in front of the stage. We’ll leave that for Limp Bizkit.”
Cody Dickinson is the phenomenal drummer for the North Mississippi Allstars. And he could be phenomenal at anything he chooses with his befriending charisma radiating through his quick Delta drawl and troublemaker grin. There’s a contagious joy about him, and there should be, as he and his brother Luther embark on their lifelong journey of music, family, and good times.
If you haven’t experienced the North Mississippi Allstars, you’re missing out on more than just a great band. The brothers Dickinson have been playing together under the graceful wing of their legendary blues and R&B producer dad Jim Dickinson (The Replacements, The Dixie Flyers) for all of their 20-some years. They started out on two guitars, playing Carl Perkins and Elvis tunes with their first band, the Rebel Aires – Luther was in third grade and Cody in kindergarten. From there came a series of different projects, from the pre-teen Pigs in Space to the adolescent harder core DDT.
Now Cody and Luther have come full swing, back home to Mississippi, to their roots and to the music that made them. Luther plays guitar and sings, Cody plays drums, and longtime friend Chris Chew rounds out the trio with a fat pocket gospel bass that bumps soul front and back. “As soon as Chris joined it started to click,” says Cody. “It really took off. It was almost like the people were ready for us, because it happened so fast.”
The threesome put to the road and soon released Shake Hands with Shorty, an impressive self-produced collection of the band’s set list, ranging from dusty front porch Fred McDowell covers to classics like “K.C. Jones.” “After that record came out, everything changed really. It got international distribution and we started to tour extensively behind it. All of a sudden we were packing clubs in cities that we had never even been to.”
Basically self-taught from the beginning, Cody has evolved into a distinct and accomplished drummer/guitarist/ bassist/pianist/producer/engineer. His grooved technique on the kit shreds with personality and character. There’s something in there that very few drummers have – roots. “I can definitely credit that sound to Otha Turner’s Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. Otha is a 93-year-old cane fife bluesman whose family is all snare drummers and bass drummers. They’re so funky. Like when I play double bass, I’m not thinking of Lars Ulrich. I’m thinking of two hands on a bass drum like the Fife and Drum band. So I do have some different approaches that I can credit to people.”
It’s a history that could only derive from the familial network of the Mid-South, but it didn’t come without your standard hard work and dedication. “Basically man, I’ll tell you what happened: I was doing a weekly gig with Shawn Lane at Murphy’s every Wednesday night in midtown Memphis. This is when I was like 17 you know, I was way too young to even be in this bar. But I met Kofi Baker, Ginger Baker’s son, and he was real inspirational to me man. He kind of set me on a path, he was like: ’Man, eat right, workout, practice everyday.’
“I took those words to heart and started lifting weights and practicing two or three hours a day and I noticed a big, big improvement in my playing. You can bang around on the drums and be mediocre forever. But if you want to make that leap into playing what you feel, you really have to put some time and dedication in there. And keeping in shape is important but you also gotta party and have a good time man. You gotta enjoy the ride.”
In fact, the two brothers were “enjoying the ride” late one night while conceptualizing their second and latest release 51 Phantom. “Luther and I had been up all night partying in London. We were staying in this shady motel over a heavy metal club called The Red Eye, and we were up on the roof talking about our second record. We decided our goal was to make the most commercially accessible, pop, rocking blues record that we could make and we were gonna do it with our old man producing.”
These boys obviously don’t mess around. Between dad’s extensive studio experience and the sons’ balls-to-the-wall gusto, the recording process was a story in itself. “We recorded superstar style, that’s what I call it.” The rest of us call it live recording – single takes. “I was like, ’Man, if we’re really superstars then we’ll do this stuff first take.’ It was a mentality to get the first take energy, plus if you’re a bad ass you play it once and that’s it.”
It works. 51 Phantom is an instant classic – a roots blues rock and roll record with original songwriting that just never dies. By combining their wicked talent with their muddy lineage and light-hearted ambition, the Dickinson family has created something real – and that’s a fresh concept nowadays. “We really try to play hill country boogie stuff but it just comes out rock and roll,” Dickinson laughs. “We really can’t help it. It just comes out rockin’. And to me that’s the real heart of what rock and roll is about – this collision of styles. To a certain extent we’re representing where we come from and our people and our friends and our family. So at the end of the day it feels good to play music that has history.
“We want to be the best rock and roll blues band in the world. That’s our goal. You can quote me on that one.”
Editor’s Note: The North Mississippi Allstars releasing a series of digital singles throughout 2012, which are available on iTunes and the band’s website. Cody Dickinson was the visionary behind the accompanying video. “Conceptualizing the treatment for the ’Rollin’ n’ Tumblin’’ video was one of the most artistically gratifying experiences of my life. Watching the images come alive on the screen was more exciting than I ever could have imagined,” says Cody. “My goal was to portray modern Mississippi, with all its natural beauty and culture mixed with inherent lost hope and struggle. Beauty in poverty. Contrast is art.”