By James Calemine
The Dickinson Brothers pay homage to their Hill Country brethren and Memphis musical kin on Electric Blue Watermelon. The album was produced by their father Jim Dickinson. Luther and Cody rise to the occasion on their strongest studio release since Shake Hands with Shorty. Electric Blue Watermelon counts as the Allstars fourth studio CD. Recorded at legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis, these 11 songs find the North Mississippi Allstars returning to the free-flowing gritty blues sound that defines their live shows.
Asked about working with their father, and the elder’s influence over the record, Luther replied, ‘working with Dad, it felt like we were finally able to make the record together that we always wanted to, and he was real happy with it—he totally did his thing. We’d go back and overdub something, but still it would be the first take. We might do another take and it might be smoother, but he’d say, “The first take was the one.”
Brother Cody indicated he no longer felt the need to produce the band again, as he did on the previous CD, Polaris. “It’s a lesson I learned the hard way,” he said. “I don’t think it’s possible to produce your own band. So, having a producer is great, and it being Dad made it all the better. He and Luther had a pretty clear vision on what they wanted the record to sound like, so it made it easier for me just to play the drums.”
Luther revealed his intention on Electric Blue Watermelon was to salute heroes like Casey Jones, Tom Joad, Stagger Lee, Billy the Kid and John Henry. “I was definitely trying to bring a sense of where and what my life was growing up, and it just wasn’t Hill Country guys—but also those Memphis guys of my father’s generation, like Lee Baker, and his band Mudboy & the Nuetrons, and Kenny Brown. Hell, I mention Kenny three times on the record—I owe so much to Kenny. He showed me the ropes and got me out on the road when I was a kid. I wanted to write songs about people I grew up admiring. When (fife player) Otha Turner died three years ago, I started writing these songs, and it made me rethink who I am and what I’m doing.”
It didn’t take long for the band to hammer out these songs. “It ended up taking six weeks,” Luther explained. ‘We cut the record in three weeks, and then we did some overdubs. Actually, we cut the band tracks in a week, and then we mixed it. Luckily, we thought we finished the record for our deadline. Then I wrote ‘Moonshine” and I thought, ‘I really missed the boat on this, because that song really sums up the whole thing. So we went back in and recorded “Moonshine”. I’m just glad I got to put it on there. When I came up with the line “bootleggers and the bottom land”, I was like, ‘that’s what I’m talking about.’”
The Allstars cover songs by Charley Patton, Odetta Gordon, Lee Baker, and of course, Jim Dickinson. Robert Randolph, Memphis rapper Al Kapone, Lucinda Williams, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band make guest appearances on the album.
Al Kapone and Robert Randolph provide serious psychedelic-blues-funk on “Stompin’ My Foot”, while ‘Moonshine” serves as the CD’s bittersweet centerpiece track. Lucinda sings the call and response duet with Luther on “Hurry up Sunrise”, which was Jim Dickinson’s idea. “Bang Bang Lulu”, a serious Memphis rocker, serves as the last foot-stomping song on the CD, as the last four tunes are laid back.
“Mean Old Wind” features Otha turner’s daughters singing a soul-soothing chorus. “Horseshoe” gives nod to the late Memphis guitarist Lee Baker, who used to live on Horseshoe Lake in Arkansas. This song showcases the Dirty dozen playing their New Orleans jazz dirge. As Luther explained, “We had them do the funeral thing, where you play it slow and sad coming in, and happy and jamming on the way out.”
The final cut, the instrumental “Bounce Ball”, harkens to the Dickinson’s youth, when Otha turner’s fife band played in the rolling hills of Fayette County. The final minute of the CD contains a symphony of crickets chirping right after the fife band plays its final note, capturing not only the essence of those warm north Mississippi evenings, but the end of a local musical era. Electric Blue Watermelon will certainly stand the test of time.