Surely there is light beyond the darkness as there is dawn after the night.
I will not be gone as long as the music lingers.
I have gladly given my life to Memphis music and it has given me back a hundredfold.
from “The Last Words of James Luther Dickinson”
Just three days after the death of his father, Memphis (and Muscle Shoals and Miami) music legend Jim Dickinson, Luther Dickinson opened the doors to the family’s Zebra Ranch studio in Independence, Mississippi and recorded Onward and Upward, an album of gospel songs and hymns over the course of a few hours. Luther, one third of the North Mississippi All-Stars and now a member of The Black Crowes, was joined by an ad hoc group dubbed “The Sons of Mudboy” (an homage to his late father’s influential rock band Mudboy and the Neutrons) who were all close to Dickinson the elder and wished to address his loss in a musical way. The Sons of Mudboy include two veterans of the original Mudboy: Sid Selvidge (guitar, vocals) and Jimmy Crosthwait (washboard, vocals). Also on the session were Jimbo Mathus (guitar, mandolin, banjo, vocals) formerly of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and of the South Memphis String Band, Steve Selvidge (guitar, dobro, vocals) and Paul Taylor (washtub bass) as well as vocalist Shannon McNally.
Inspired by Dickinson pater familias, Luther and company duplicated the sound of mid-Century era reel-to-reel filed recordings, using only two microphones plugged directly into a two-track ½ inch tape recorder: no mixing after the fact. Ardent’s John Fry mastered the tracks directly from the two track to the mother stamper from which (vinyl) pressings were sourced. Most of the songs were nailed in just one take with just a few exceptions and those were completed in no more than three takes. “That’s just how we do it,“ Luther muses.
Onward and Upward will be released on November 10 by Memphis International, the label for which Jim Dickinson, as his performing alter ego James Luther Dickinson, released his last three album, Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger (2006), Killers From Space (2007) and this year’s Dinosaurs Run in Circles.
The songs are part of Luther’s musical heritage. He grew up hearing “Softly and Tenderly” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” at the Second Avenue Baptist Church in Memphis where his paternal grandmother played piano. He learned “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” from a hymnal that his father shared with him – his mom, Mary Lindsay Dickinson, actually sang it to him in the hospital where her husband was being treated during his last days. Mississippi Fred McDowell’s album “Amazing Grace” is the source of both “Back Back Train” and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” and Luther had been known to perform them with the late Otha Turner who closed every show with “Glory Glory,” also included on Onward and Upward. “Let It Roll” is an original that sprang to Luther’s mind at the moment he was loading in the analog tape machine on the day of the recordings. Another original, “Up Over Yonder” was written the day Luther’s grandmother passed away.
The inspiration for the album’s title came from the legendary Sam Phillips who wrote a heartfelt ode to Luther’s dad a while back:
“Shade of anticipation is the ever present glint in Jim D’s eye.
Hearing strange noises that others let pass by.
Music that make you shout walk the backs of gospel benches,
Makes you moan yes, even cry
it be could – it may be
it is Jim D’s soul of sound bouncing off the sky.”
Onward and Upward tracklisting
* Let It Roll
* His Eye Is On The Sparrow
* Learning On the Everlasting Arms
* Up Over Yonder
* Softy and Tenderly
* Back Back Train
* Angel Band
* Where the Soul of A Man Never Dies
* You Got To Walk That Lonesome Valley
* In The Garden
* Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning
* Glory Glory