The North Mississippi Allstars: Keys To The Kingdom
Released: February 1, 2011
Songs of the South Records
This album is dedicated to Jim Dickinson, Luther and Cody Dickinson's late legendary father. He died on August 15, 2009, and a few months later, Luther and his wife welcomed a baby into the family.
Jim Dickinson was a blues pianist and session musician, as well as a producer. He was also a blues historian enthusiast to preserve the style of music specific to Northern Mississippi. He told his sons that production in absentia is the highest form of honor and they took this seriously. With strength, courage, faith and humor, this family looked death straight in the eye - because in their circle - life is celebrated hill/country/blues style.
The record was produced in the family's studio, Zebra Ranch, in Coldwater, Mississippi. Luther, Cody, and Chris Chew, along with a host of celebrity guest artists perform in different constellations. Luther and Cody were separated doing different projects at the time that he died and came together to produce this work.
This album has been called a 'song cycle' or a 'concept album' and Luther himself has mentioned the stages of grief in relation to the songs and how they are written. Given the emotionality of this production, if you're a digital music fan, spend the extra few bucks to download the whole album. These songs tell parts of a whole story that build on each other. Their order is important, to the impact of the album and the message it delivers. If you listen carefully to the lyrics, instruments, arrangements and the peripheral sound effects of these tracks, you can almost imagine yourself at Zebra Ranch, with the Dickinson family, surrounded by their beloved friends and legendary musicians. They hammered out this work to deal with their grief, honor Mr. Dickinson and celebrate life. Don't be afraid, this album is raw, but it is not depressing, it is triumphant.
The album opens with an invitation to be real. Luther's voice is straightforward and edgy. The consistent form and tempo of the song stays on point. No one is backing down. "Three wild horses in a line, looks like I'm going for a ride ..." a reference, perhaps, to his father's session work on the song Wild Horses with the Rolling Stones.
The guitar, slide, drums, all come together, combined with a lyrical chant to create a new cathartic rock anthem. Sing this song loudly in your car, in your basement, off the rooftops on a bad day. It will be a great stress reliever and I can't wait to scream it live at the next show.
This is my all time favorite track on the album. This gospel style song gets to the courage and the steps you need to face life and death on its terms. Just Luther's question, "Pre-tell my brother, where you headin?" - catches your attention. When Luther asks again, his voice rises. This album is raw. The story it tells is raw. But with soul maven Mavis Staples by your side, and Funk Brothers Jack Ashford on tambourine, how can you not march on? It's about taking responsibility for yourself, no matter what you're facing. The power of this song is that as hard as it is to 'face a new day-stare down the rising sun" when you're suffering, you're never alone. This community is kickin strong. My favorite line is, "Steady as a tree, free as the wind, walk on water with you my friend."
How I Wish My Train Would Come:
This is a song of acceptance. The lyrics tell the evolution of hope for the next life in times of despair.The rock arrangement of it, has a punk-Westerberg feel to it that never lets go of its rebelliousness. Now Mr. Dickinson and Alex Chilton are buzzin around heaven like flies on sherbet.
Hear the Hills:
Keys to the Kingdom is the chorus of this title track song. It tells of the appreciation of the good things in this life, while reaching for the next life. The steady stream of guitar and drums keeps the pace of the song as it holds the listener, keeping us on track. The voices are both narrator and subject. Toward the end, Luther and Cody bid their father to Rest In Peace and the phrasing comes to a natural close. But the song doesn't end there, there's a pause, Cody's drums re-enter, the guitar starts again and they carry on an with instrumental version of the first stanzas. Then in comes a beautiful and subtle piano piece, by Spooner Oldham. You'll hear echo effects and softly listen more because there are sounds of the south to be heard ... more piano in the distance, amongst the backyard noises of crickets and summer bugs. This is a magnificent tribute and gorgeous arrangement. This backyard breeze invitation comes up again in a future song.
Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again:
The songs are all original, except this one which is a Bob Dylan cover. I read a touching story of Luther at his father's bedside when his father told him to include this song on the new album. Mr. Dickinson couldn't speak, so he had the wherewithal to write down "one chord hill country blues" arrangement on a piece of paper and Luther promised they'd play it. I think this version has gone beyond expectations and with all due respect to Mr. Dylan, some reviewers have stated that Luther sings it better than Dylan himself.
Let It Roll:
I read that this was re-written for this record from the album, Luther Dickinson and the Sons of Mudboy. Straightforward hard core traditional blues.
Ain't No Grave:
This song is stunning, and the thoughts he raises stay with you. Ry Cooder, Jim's old friend, joins this song on guitar. This has been called by the press kit, the 'emotional centerpiece' of the album. It can take some people a lifetime to grasp their own understanding of death. The song opens as Luther looks death straight in the eye, sings it all directly; honest, grounded, it just pours out of his soul. He shows empathy and respect for his family and their perspective, speaks of soul-mates, while dealing with his own pain. He is a model of courage for the rest of us trying to figure things out. At the end, his baby girl is looking at him straight in the eye. Cody's drums are the rolling march, faithful, steady and strong. The cycle of life continues, bittersweet and beautiful.
Alvin Youngblood Hart joins on vocals and harmonica. This is a soothing acoustic string band trot alongside the rest of the story. Similar to the rest of these works, the words are heart wrenching, but the song arrangements normalize the experience, so you can take it all in stride.
New Orleans Walkin' Dead:
Honestly, I did not expect this song and it had me cracking up with laughter! Nobody better steal these lyrics and make them into a zombie movie. The Allstars own this one. I had a Cajun neurology professor in college with similar stories, no one ever really dies in New Orleans!
Ain't None O'Mine:
I read this was inspired by Otha Turner. Real down in the dirt blues, life is back, raw and searching.Yeah, I have a lot to learn about Otha Turner, and some of it I'll never read in a book ! Love the reverb guitar in this one, it smokes !
Jellyrollin' All Over Heaven:
This is another one of my favorite tracks. It is happy and parades around, tying together any loose end you ever had in your mind about death. It all works out, world boogie is on its way and we will celebrate it, 'shaking that heavenly thang!" At the end of the song, Luther whispers, "just say Amen." Spooner Oldham plays his piano again for another visit to the backyard at the beloved Zebra Ranch. You can almost feel the summer dew just drench these thirsty souls.
Thank You, Mr. Dickinson, for giving us these talented musicians who are obviously proud to be your son. Enjoy the album. It's been an honor.