Forgive the informalities

by Ryan Snyder

NMAS guitarist unwinds in between album release and touring season

(L to R) Luther Dickson, Alvin “Youngblood” Hart and Jimbo Malthus are the South Memphis String Band, a supergroup of sorts.

Fans of Luther Dickinson’s loosey-goosey side project South Memphis String Band will have to forgive the dearth of shows on the calendar thus far in 2011. When one of the greatest living singers in rock and roll comes a callin’, far be it from anyone to turn him down. That was where Dickinson found himself when Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant requested that the North Mississippi Allstars open his Band of Joy tour (see this week’s show review for more), prompting Dickinson to abbreviate his time with friends and bandmates Jimbo Mathus and Alvin “Youngblood” Hart before launching his own massive tour this spring and summer to instead serve at the pleasure of the rock god. The brief time he gets when the trio hooks up for a pair of dates in North Carolina next week, Dickinson promises, will be well spent.

“I’m mainly looking forward to the trash talking,” the fiery Delta guitarist said. The stage banter between the three friends alone is worth the price of admission, but they save the bluest part of their repartee for behind the scenes. “The true nature of South Memphis String Band is way beyond public consumption,” he added.

But that’s to be expected when two old ship hands who spent years working the Mississippi River get together with a kid who grew up in juke joints, along with a pool of songs deeper than a Georgia quarry. When they first began this project in 2009, Dickinson said there was a certain charm to be found in their raggedy chemistry, as his legendary father producer Jim Dickinson compelled them to be a little less accurate before his passing. Dickinson says straight-faced that they took the advice to heart, and now, they’re “in complete shambles.” But really, no band involving three players as distinguished as these could possibly be in the state of dishevel he suggests. The trash talking, however, never does stop, though.

“They’re both unbelievably old,” he points out for good measure, but that limitation works well for the style of music they’ve dedicated to upholding for this project. All three are beyond accomplished guitarists, but in traditional string- and jug-band fashion, they’re also constantly swapping around mandolins, banjos, slide guitars, a diddley bow, a jaw bone for percussion and various other odds and ends for sharing songs from their own catalogs and other classics from the Delta. Dickinson says Mathus makes the set lists beforehand, but the shows never quite go as planned. “You can’t tell Alvin what to do man,” Dickinson said. “You just gotta let him do his thing.”

Dickinson’s musical relationship with the two goes back more than ten years — he met Squirrel Nut Zippers founder Mathus in 1996 while he was still fronting the Chapel Hill group the and then Hart a few years later in 1999 — and has been playing on albums with them ever since. Hart in particular can be heard throughout the North Mississippi Allstars’ latest release Keys To The Kingdom, an album released on Feb. 1 that in many ways is the product of Luther and his brother Cody’s learning to deal with the inevitable passing of their father.

“I wasn’t trying to, but the songs just kept coming out. In a way it was the most wonderful songwriting experience I’ve ever had,” Dickinson said. “These songs just kept coming to me whole and full. It was a wonderful feeling to have.”

Including Hart, the album features a bevy of guests from his father’s generation and many that the elder Dickinson had worked with at some point. Mavis Staples shows up for vocal support on the spiritual “The Meeting,” while Ry Cooder’s guitar is heard on the dirge-y “The Grave.” Despite the album essentially being a song cycle on life and death, the tone is unrepentantly positive and uplifting, just the way Dickinson says his father would have made it himself.

“Even though he wasn’t there he was there with us,” Dickinson said.

“It shouldn’t be heavy-hearted, that’s what my father wanted and how he carried himself. He was so thankful at the end.”

The South Memphis String Band will perform along with altcountry singer Jim White at the McChesney Scott Dunn Auditorium in Winston-Salem next Saturday, Feb. 19 as a part of SECCA’s Crossroads Concert series.