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Stars and Bars

With Their New Album, the North Mississippi Allstars Declare that Southern Rock Shall Rise Again

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 9/3/2003

"The term Southern rock doesn't make sense," Gregg Allman once told me, "because rock 'n' roll was born in the South. To say Southern-rock is like saying rock-rock."

Well, yes and no. It's true that rock 'n' roll got its initial push from Southerners such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis, but by the time Gregg Allman and his big brother Duane started their band in 1969 the Southern role was less obvious in a field dominated by acts from Liverpool, London, Los Angeles, and Hibbing, Minn. That's why the Allman Brothers Band sounded so fresh with their direct connection to hillbilly melodies, boogie rhythms, and Delta growls. That's why the sound required its own genre name.

Today, 34 years later, a new Southern rock is stirring, and its breakthrough album arrives next Tuesday in the form of the North Mississippi Allstars' Polaris. The Allstars bear a superficial resemblance to the Allmans, but there's a crucial difference in the newcomers' sound, which is full of drones and staggered syncopation. That's because the Allstars build their rock 'n' roll not on the Delta blues of the first Southern-rock movement, but on the Mississippi Hill Country blues.

If you head east from the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, near the Mississippi River, you drive through the mythical crossroads of routes 61 and 49 and follow 278 toward Oxford. For a while, you drive past giant cotton farms, straight rows stretching to the horizon. But as you approach Batesville, the topography begins to buckle and rises into a north-south bluff that marks the beginning of the hills that continue east across Alabama and into Georgia.

You have left behind the Delta, an area of huge plantations and the innovative blues of its transient workers. You have entered the Hill Country, an area of small farms, often owned by African-Americans who gather at juke joints on Saturday nights to hear a much more conservative form of the blues. Propelled by severely syncopated rhythms and drenched in modal drones, Hill Country blues is the most African-sounding music left in North America.

"In the Hill Country," explains Luther Dickinson, leader of the North Mississippi Allstars, "it boils down to the rhythm and the melody, because the chord changes are all implied. The melody implies the changes, but the chords don't change. By contrast, Robert Johnson was much more sophisticated harmonically--he'd have intricate chord changes and turnarounds and even a bridge sometimes.

"But I think it's the trancelike one-chord sound of the Hill Country that makes it sound contemporary," he continues. "It's the primitiveness that makes it sound modern. People have grown up on Mississippi and Chicago blues, so that's an established sound. But you put on a Junior Kimbrough record, and it sounds like it came from Mars. And a lot of punk kids can get into it, because there's a lot of one-chord music out there these days."

Hill Country blues can be heard in its purest form on albums released by such elders as Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Otha Turner, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Asie Payton. Luther Dickinson and his brother Cody apprenticed themselves to Turner and Burnside, absorbing the style at close range. But the brothers are also the sons of Memphis musical legend Jim Dickinson. Jim played piano on the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" and Aretha Franklin's "Spirit in the Dark," and was a longtime member of Ry Cooder's band. He has led Memphis bands such as Mud Boy and the Neutrons and Raisins in the Sun and has produced albums by Big Star and Joe King Carrasco.

"I was 13 or 14 when my dad produced the Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me," Luther remembers. "I got to play guitar on one song, but more importantly, I got to watch Paul Westerberg lay down vocals and tracks. I learned so much about songwriting and arranging rock songs."

What happens when you combine all these influences? You get an album like Polaris. You get an album where Jim Dickinson, Otha Turner, and Oasis' Noel Gallagher all have something to contribute in the studio. You get an album with more melody than Burnside's music, more youthful spark than the Allmans', and a far funkier groove than the Replacements'.

The Allstars' 2000 debut album, Shake Hands With Shorty, was devoted almost entirely to old blues tunes by Burnside, Kimbrough, and McDowell. The follow-up, 2001's Phantom 51, was dominated by originals, but the group's songwriting wasn't yet as good as its playing. Since then, the trio (Luther, Cody, and gospel-singing bassist Chris Chew) has added a fourth member, Burnside's guitar-playing son Duwayne. More importantly, they have matured as songwriters and are now able to submerge their influences in cohesive songs.

The Hill Country blues pop up everywhere--in the affectionate cover of Junior Kimbrough's "Meet Me in the City," in the 12-bar beginning of "Conan," in the ominous drone of "All Along," in the two-chord boogie of "Never in All My Days," in the fife-and-drum march of "Be so Glad." But there's much more, and that's what makes this groundbreaking rock 'n' roll rather than blues-revival nostalgia.

"Eyes" suggests that the best thing about heaven is the sexy, freaky angels, and backs up that vision with a pretty slide guitar figure that rises with desire and swoons with satisfaction. Cody sings "Otay," a seductive piece of psychedelic pop that promises, "It's all good." "Kids These Daze" uses a knockabout pop-punk hook to celebrate kids who sleep in their vans and dance in the mud. The title track welcomes back an absconded girlfriend with an anthemic chorus that promises second chances can work.

Such self-assured optimism, when it permeates the music as well as the lyrics, is the essential ingredient in transforming the blues into rock 'n' roll, and the North Mississippi Allstars radiate the expectation that something good is about to happen. Their enthusiasm is broad enough to embrace both the past and the future, both the 19th-century rhythms of Hill Country juke joints and the 21st-century attitudes of urban rock clubs. That's a lot of ground to cover, and it's the Allstars' ability to do so that makes Polaris one of the year's most thrilling albums.

The North Mississippi Allstars are not lone warriors; they are spearheading a whole Southern-rock revival. Geography doesn't matter as much as allegiance to the Hill Country sound. The Tarbox Ramblers, for example, hail from Boston, but their forthcoming second album was produced in Memphis by Jim Dickinson and turns old blues and gospel tunes into irreverent rock 'n' roll.

The Black Keys may be from Akron, Ohio, but they model their lineup (singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney) on the Hill Country duo of T-Model Ford and Spam and have released their second album, Thickfreakness, on the Hill Country's flagship label, Fat Possum. The album features a grunged-up cover of Kimbrough's "Everywhere I Go," but even Auerbach's originals bristle with the droning harmonies, jagged guitar fills, and a push-and-pull drumming that could have come from Holly Springs, Miss.

But because they encountered that sound as Ohio college kids rather than neighborhood farmers, they put a different spin on it, less concerned with providing dance music for juke joints than in using different guitar sounds to highlight the stories they're telling in rock clubs. When Auerbach describes a girlfriend jumping out of the car in the middle of the road on "No Trust," for example, he uses his borrowed licks to unveil the blues as they exist on suburban streets from Cuyahoga Falls to Towson.

The North Mississippi Allstars play the Funk Box on Sunday, Sept. 7.

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