Most bands take it a step at a time: Get their act together, play gigs, get signed, put everything into the first album, scramble like crazy to get the follow-up together. It can be a scary scenario, guided more by luck than design.
North Mississippi All Stars LogoNot with the North Mississippi Allstars. Before they built their reputation as the most intriguing act to emerge from the loam of Southern blues and roots rock, before they had even started on their first album â€¦ in fact, back in the very dawn of their career, they were already conceiving Polaris, their third and most compelling album.
Even as their first album, Shake Hands With Shorty, was inspiring writers like Nick Tosches to hail the band as "a formidable and mesmerizing force," and Rolling Stoneâ€™s David Fricke to describe the Allstars as â€œpureeing historical precedent into exuberant modernism â€“ manic cottonfield psychedelia,â€? guitarist/ singer Luther Dickinson, bassist Chris Chew, and drummer/pianist/ singer Cody Dickinson realized that Polaris was one of their ultimate ambitions -- the album that would reveal a kind of creativity that Shorty and the second album 51 Phantom, only hinted at.
"The first records were building blocks," Luther reveals. "We've been thinking and talking about Polaris since 1999. We were on a three-record plan and we always knew that number three would be our most ambitious album."
Polaris is a culmination of all their efforts, archival and innovative, tempered by history and sparked by a sense of risk and experimentation.
You already know the basics. The Dickinson brothers grew up in music. Their dad, Jim Dickinson, is one of the most respected producers to come out of Memphis. When they were barely old enough to travel, he would haul them up to Ardent Studios, where some of his landmark sessions had taken place, to watch him lay down tracks.
North Mississippi All Stars"We must have seen a hundred sessions," Cody remembers, "the cream of the crop in Memphis. We saw our dad work with the Replacements and Spiritualized. I was so small at the time that it was like going into a spaceship to see all this stuff."
Inevitably, Cody and Luther started playing music at a young age. They started recording
as teenagers, on dates with the Replacements, New Gospel Choir, Mojo Nixon, and other artists. Joining with bassist Paul "Snowflake" Taylor, they formed a punk-inflected trio, DDT, and opened for headliners like the Replacements, Jakob Dylan and Ice-T.
The acoustic version of the group, Gutbucket, tapped more into their Southern musical heritage. When they backed bassist Chris Chew, performing as a solo artist at his high school homecoming dance, their punk and roots influences came together, and the North Mississippi Allstars were born.
From 1996, when they played their first gig on a bill with 91-year-old fife-and-drum corps legend Otha Turner and blues giant R. L. Burnside, the Allstars nurtured their association with the traditions that had nourished their part of the country. Turner and Burnsideâ€™s impact, along with that of Junior Kimbrough, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and countless lesser-known performers, enriched Shake Hands With Shorty (2000) and 51 Phantom (2001), both of which garnered Grammy nominations and lavish media praise.
Although the regional scene is essential to their roots as musicians, the Allstars have always been about much more than just the blues. From hardcore to punk rock to British rock to the latest acts on MTV, the Dickinsons and Chew have absorbed a wide variety of music and filter it through their own sound.
A major step in the evolution of that sound came in September 2001 when the trio welcomed Duwayne Burnside, R. L.'s son, as a full member. With this decision, the Allstars were finally poised to bring Polaris to life.
"Duwayne and I were already really good friends when it came together," Cody says. "We were at Otha Turner's [annual] picnic. It was raining like hell, and we were all playing inside a tent. Luther and Duwayne were playing guitar together, we were doing boogie, and it was red hot! Otha told me and Duwayne that we should stick together, and it's true: He fit right in, and we're stronger now than we ever were."
Duwayne's arrival opened the door toward the more collaborative approach that would lead to Polaris. In the past, Cody spent most of his stage time on drums; with Duwayne's ability to double on drums as well, Cody started coming out front more often to play guitar or piano and trade lead vocals with Luther, as well as his signature washboard. This, in turn, made it natural for him to assume a greater role in songwriting, penning several songs on his own while also collaborating with his brother for the first time.
"We never, ever worked together on lyrics until we wrote 'Kids These Daze,' which we did during the sessions for Polaris," Cody says. "That was a huge accomplishment."
"The music was inspired by another one of Cody's songs, 'One to Grow On,'" Luther adds. "It turned into kind of a rock and roll anthem, really different from the modern Hill Country/ Southern folklore lyrics I usually write. Guitar wise, the music is Mississippi John Hurt playing a psychedelic rock song.â€?
As the group enriched its sound with a more contemporary feel, new directions opened up for them. Upon receiving early demos of the new album from the band, Allstars fan and friend, Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher, heard â€œOne To Grow Onâ€? and offered vocals on the track. During his session in London with the band, Gallagher heard the albumâ€™s title track and had to sing on that one too. Cody and Luther had first met Gallagher while playing in London in 2001, where Noel and the band caught a few of their shows. Six months later, Cody was back in London on vacation, and Noel invited him out to his studio. It was a huge inspiration for Cody to see Oasis working and recording. One song written after that experience, "Otay," fits into what Luther calls "a rockin' pop groove," though the words pull more from blues than pop. â€œI took phrases I heard hangin with Duwayne and his friends. The mood of the lyrics are gangster, but the message is perseverance.â€?
Complementing this flavor, Polaris showcases the most intricate, and experimental improvising yet laid down by the Allstars. Recorded msotly live, it documents their reconfiguration as a twin-guitar juggernaut, with Cody roaring through drum parts that push the rhythm more than anything he'd previously played with the band.
"That comes from all the touring we've done," he explains. "When I recorded Shake Hands With Shorty and even 51 Phantom, I didn't nearly have the experience I've got now, so was always pulling back the reins. Now I'm geared mainly to doing live shows, and I could let that come through on Polaris."
North Mississippi Allstarâ€™s recorded their early CDâ€™s at Zebra Ranch Studios in Coldwater, MS, but they recorded all their music for Polaris at Ardent Studios, in the same room where Cody and Luther had watched their father work his magic. The band felt liberated recording at Ardent with their full stage equipment at full volume. As if to emphasize the history of the venue, the Allstars elected to record Polaris on 16-track analog tape, with John Hampton recording.
Not only that â€“ Luther and Cody found the perfect complement to their producing abilities, and they reached a new level of working with their father. "It was great, because he was hanging out with us the day we were working on 'All Along.' As we were trying to nail the guitar sound, he went wandering off and came back with this old, fucked-up amp, put it in front of us, and said, 'That's the Big Star sound, right there, boy.'"
Luther plugged into this dusty relic, which had apparently been lying around since his father cut the old power trio's two albums some 30 years ago. "I'd heard these stories of Alex Chilton turning all the knobs up to 10," he says, "so I did that too, and boom, there it was. We got the slide guitar for 'All Along' on the first take, and it was all smooth sailing from there."
Polaris offers songs built on punchy hooks ("Eyes") and ones stretched over more extended structures ("One to Grow On,â€? with live string parts arranged by Cody). The Earl King and Junior Kimbrough songs (â€œTime for the Sun to Riseâ€? and â€œMeet Me in the City,â€? respectively) have been a part of the Polaris game plan from the beginning. The feel changes with each track, from raw, Freddie King-style riffs on "Never" to "Be So Glad," whose primitive power reaches way back to chain-gang chants, with the band's 96-year-old mentor Otha Turner and Cody Burnside, speed-rapping grandson of R. L. Burnside, adding multi-generational depth to the vocals.
"This was supposed to be our most 'out' album," Luther says. "In the end, we took everything we can do -- Hill Country blues, gospel, psychedelic pop, and everything else -- and used it to nail down a whole new kind of Southern Rock. And we don't feel bashful about it at all. This is the best stuff we've ever done, because we were definitely not scared of taking chances. This record is honest and from the heart.â€?