The producers

Back to Goin' Down South

Please keep in mind that what I am about to say is an assumption. I do not claim to know the Dickinsons or their characters nor have I ever worked with or seen them in the studio. My presumption solely comes from searching various articles and interviews as well as a comparison to my own musical and studio experience.

In all my research of the Dickinsons, I have come to notice that there are certain similarities in topics...

One: Jim Dickinson was a producer and he worked in the studio with so and so and so and so.

Two: Cody and Luther Dickinson are sons of this legendary producer.

Three: these three Dickinsons are incredible musicians.

But to me there is one element missing in all of these articles and my research. Not one single interview, review, story that I can find explains the one ingredient key to their producing style. Of course, I am more than willing to admit I am wrong, but this is where I stand at the moment.

Sure, they all mention that the Dickinson family learned from the original bluesmen or that Jim learned the ropes as the ropes were formed, but what does that mean? So I figured I would have to hunt for this significant element myself. Then it hit me! That’s the point...finding it myself. So I threw away any article or bio I was reading and just listened. The Dickinsons find the moment when it is right, a talent first brought out from a noninstitutionalized style of learning music. Their sound (recorded, played, produced) can be described in one word: primal. And when it comes to the approach: instinct. Ok, so what does that mean?

What is that? Watermelon?

Jim, as fate would have it, was not able to see the notes on the page of sheet music. In an esoteric way, he was basically forced to learn music in a different, more primitive way. This direction and experience was passed down to his sons however incidental. Jim has said that he never forced his kids into music, but it was just their natural progression. Cody and Luther later studied basic notation, but always above the basis of that original style.

Jim Dickinson occasionally mentions the story of Luther asking if he would teach him how to play. Jim replies by saying that if he teaches Luther, then he will end up playing like his dad, and that wouldn’t be right. Luther had to teach himself.

In the studio with Dad, Jim describes his kids being like sponges, absorbing all that they were seeing and hearing. While watching all of the greats cut their celebrated albums, he didn’t realize that they were also becoming extremely comfortable in this environment. Jim says it became apparent in their playing as teenagers.

So what does all of this have to do with feeling or instinct? Jim Dickinson talks about performers “being in the moment,” a phrase coined from a philosophy of theater acting styles to suggest an actor be real and go with gut instinct rather than just spout words from a page. The difference can be compared to eating a oven-baked pie made from flour and sugar rather than a nuked Saralee frozen generic tart (no offence to those who like Saralee, but hopefully you see the dissimilarity).

Luther was drilled by the bluesmen until he could “feel” the music rather than read it or just generically play it. And to illustrate the point, here is an early recording of Otha Turner teaching Luther in a song called “Boogie.” This is included on a Luther production called Everybody Hollerin' Goat. Not included in this clip is the beginning when Otha says, "the boy's gettin' good." When Luther goes slightly off, Otha exclaims, "Luther, whaddya doin'? You better watch ya shit, now."

Luther and Otha clip one

And later Luther pulls a little improvisation to the piece to which Otha replies, “there it is!” Luther finally ends the piece with a schtick making everyone laugh and Otha exclaim, "that some bad shit there, I ain't shittin' ya!"

Luther and Otha clip two

Instinct had a great deal to do with the Allstars first official record, Shake Hands with Shorty. Luther says, “our main objective, Cody and I, in self-production was to capture the live spirit on a CD, and it’s really not as easy as we originally thought it was gonna be. We ended up really recorded the music twice. We worked on it and then we went back and listened and we said, ‘aw, we just don’t have it yet,’ so we had to go back and rethink. I’m glad we waited. For a couple of years when we first started were, like, ‘c’mon let’s…’ you know. We were constantly recording; we have our own small recording facility, but we never felt is was right there, yet, because the music was constantly changing.”

The primitive playing affects the way they decide to record. Jim with his Delta Experiments and Luther with his productions of Otha are recordings made out in the open with the crickets and the highway nearby capturing that authentic feel without taking a type of music out of it’s skin. In addition, I am taking this statement out of context, but I believe that Jim describes Cody in the same way with the production of Polaris, “they simply didn’t finish the record. They got in over their heads and didn’t finish it. The mix doesn’t exist; it wasn’t mixed. You know, the drummers don’t have to finish, they just have to track!” This remark could be stating a great deal about Cody’s ability to capture a basic sound in the spirit of psychedelic experimentation. So unlike Shake Hands with Shorty which took a couple of years to find the a primitive sound, Polaris is complete in a shorter time to establish a polished sound. This might be prevalent in Cody’s production of rap music by recording complicated syncopations in one correct take. That in itself is a primitive approach to recording and another version of “being in the moment.”

Regardless, as the Dickinsons play and record music, a style becomes obvious. The three Dickinsons stick to the same innate philosophy of cherishing the old style and molding it into something new. As a result, they are innovative as they are traditional. Maybe that’s why all the albums they’ve produced, mixed, recorded, toured with have that appeal for so many different audiences. They have the versatility as players to match various musical styles, and they add an extra dimension to the players around them.

I'm leaving this section with that...feels a little unfinished, doesn't it?