One Track Mind: North Mississippi Allstars, "51 Phantom" (2001)

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by Pico

Much like jazz, most young people get introduced to the blues from artists who mix it with a more mainstream type of music, which usually means rock. Twenty years ago Stevie Ray Vaughan’s music was the gateway to the straight blues while the young Jonny Lang led the way there near the turn of the millennium.

Today’s blues heroes to the Gen-X and Gen-Y crowd like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the Black Keys appeal to those groups by filtering the blues through the sound of alternative or indie rock.

Last week’s OTM was a hybrid of rock and Chicago electric blues by a guy who’s been doing it for a long time. This week we shine the spotlight on a song that combines alt-rock with northern Mississippi blues by a relatively new outfit of young players with some fresh ideas.

The North Mississippi Allstars is a Memphis-area trio comprising of guitarist/singer Luther Dickinson, drummer/pianist/singer Cody Dickinson and bassist Chris Chew. (Note: they’ve since grown to a quartet with the addition of Duwayne Burnside.)

The Dickinson brothers were already veterans of the Memphis music scene by the time they became adults, since their father Jim Dickinson was one of the more highly respected producers in town.

As kids, they soaked in sessions that involved bands like the Replacements, Mojo Nixon and The Spin Doctors. Meanwhile, their upbringing in hills of northern Mississippi exposed them to the music of legends from that region, like Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside with their modal, often narcotic style of blues. By the time they added Chew to form the Allstars following a foray into punk, the ingredients were all there for their unique blend of music both old and new.

The boys debuted with an album full of northern Mississippi blues covers for 2000’s Shake Hands With Shorty. The following year they followed up with a set of originals that showed the strong influence of the covers of the previous album called 51 Phantom.

The record leads off with the song of the same name and it’s a straight ahead power rocker of a track. There’s not a whole lot of nuances to talk about in this song; a three minute, two chord verse with a two chord bridge, and no solos. It’s not a song you ponder whether you like it or not, and if you do, you’ll like it loud.

What is significant is that there are signposts of classic electric blues cropping up throughout the song. About bootlegging moonshine from Memphis to New Orleans on a legendary U.S. highway (Bob Dylan wrote about this same road on his debut album), the piledriving amped up guitar of Luther throws off strong echoes of Elmore James when he cops James’ signature slide riff on the second chord. His sneering vocals end some lines with a Howlin’ Wolf blues yodel. Meanwhile, Cody and Chew keep the backbeat going like a train.

To say this is indicative of the NMA’s style is not really even close; there’s so many more wrinkles they bring to the table elsewhere in their body of work. But for this song at least, they testify to the simple beauty of the blues of their homeland. Even as they are rocking hard doing so.

It’s like a drug; a gateway drug to the blues.

Purchase: North Mississippi Allstars 51 Phantom

“One Track Mind” is a weekly drool over a single song selected on a whim and a short thesis on why you should be drooling over it, too.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron

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