Perhaps best known as the drummer for the North Mississippi Allstars, a band he founded with his brother Luther over two decades ago, Cody Dickinson is also a multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, and producer set to release his new solo album, Checkerboard Lounge. He’ll follow that with a series of Cody Dickinson and Friends shows, March 13-20, in the southern U.S., uniting with Todd Nance (Widespread Panic), Jon Mills (Bloodkin), and Kody Harrell.
Dickinson explains that the new album, his second solo record, “is named after my home studio that I built early last year. I played all the instruments, except for a few featured musicians, and did all the production and mixing.”
The enthusiasm and anticipation in Dickinson’s voice virtually reaches through the phone and grabs hold in the same fashion as his electrifying blues as he discusses his new album, the thrill of performing live, and the continuing influence of his late father and famed musician/producer Jim Dickinson, Phil Lesh, and the late Col. Bruce Hampton.
I’m going to guess the name of your studio is a reference to the Chicago blues club where the Rolling Stones played with Muddy Waters.
It’s not. We painted my studio black and red. We joke about it being a checkerboard lounge.
So you didn’t know about the blues club and the Stones connection?
No, but that’s so cool. That’s perfect. What a beautiful, serendipitous connection.
Guitarist Eric Schenkman from Spin Doctors is one of those featured guests on Checkerboard Lounge and is on the first track you released from the album, “Bumping My Head.”
Eric just rips up the solo on that. I think he did it in one take, two takes tops. “Bumping My Head” was inspired by Karl Denson. I was watching Karl play with the Tiny Universe and I was saying, ‘He’s in the Rolling Stones!’ It doesn’t get any higher than that. He hit the ceiling. He’s bumping his head. So, that song is basically about good times and success.
There’s a lot of depth to these songs.
The rest of the record is really about love. I’ve sort of avoided, my whole career, writing songs about relationships. For whatever reason, I decided to take it head-on. It’s a very personal record. A lot of the lyrics deal with the trials and tribulations of falling in love, and then the beautiful payoff; the happiness that makes it all worth it. Music is such a powerful communicator. Hopefully some of these songs will resonate with people and they can enjoy listening to them as much as I enjoyed making them.
You’re going to support the record with a string of shows?
We’re going to hit the road, and I’m super excited about it. I get to premiere all these new songs, these 10 originals from the record. Also, Todd has these awesome songs. It’ll be a mashup of North Mississippi hill country boogie with that Athens, Georgia, song-oriented music.
With Todd there, I’m guessing you will be playing a lot of guitar.
Mostly guitar and singing. Some piano. I’m also setting up a double drum kit so Todd and I will do some double drumming. And, of course, the electric washboard.
Your Cody Dickinson and Friends show are in between runs with the North Mississippi Allstars. Where are the Allstars at right now in terms of an artistic trajectory?
The Allstars have been going strong for over 20 years now. The beautiful thing about blues music is its longevity; the older you get, the more seasoned it becomes; the more the music makes sense. The Allstars are just now learning how to play with dynamics. We can take a big rock show and break it down to a heartbeat; where you can hear a pin drop, like (what) Buddy Guy (does), at the drop of a hat. That’s something you learn with age. I feel like even though we’ve been making records for a long time we’re really hitting our stride now.
The older we get, the more interesting the music becomes. We’re telling a story. It was exciting when we were new. But, that freshness wears off even though those times were amazing. I know there will never be another Bonnaroo one, or the first time we went to Europe and played Glastonbury, or whatever. Those times have come and gone. We’re in a new world now. It’s a world around us that has changed so much. There is a culture behind what we do. I feel like there needs to be preservation, along with the celebration, of this music.
Did playing with your brother ever hinder getting to this point or did it give you a head start?
Absolutely, it’s a head start. As my brother from another mother, Oteil (Burbridge) said, ‘That brother thing is once in a lifetime.’ There’s nothing like it. The musical dynamic, the communication is immediate. When you’re playing music, it’s incredible and definitely an advantage. It’s a clear channel. When instinct kicks in amazing things happen. Luther and I have very different tastes, but very similar instincts. We have been playing music apart, and there’s definitely something to be said for working separately. When we get back together with the Allstars we bring new things to the table. The Allstars are like a bicycle: we just pick up where we left off.
Any sibling rivalry?
Yes, of course. Anybody that has a sibling knows that dynamic. You know each other so well. It’s easy to push each other’s buttons; to have a short fuse because you don’t have to maintain that common courtesy that you would with a stranger. You have your own shorthand. We’re adults now. We’re matured. And, we’re business partners as much as anything else. So now that shorthand is a strength. That being said, 99% of the disagreements we have had over the years have been about music because we are both so passionate about it.
The bass spot in the Allstars has been the one that has been in flux. Is it hard for a bassist to get in there when your connection with your brother is so strong? And how has Carl Dufresne done with that task?
Sure it is, and that’s a very observant question. You can probably see that onstage. You can watch us perform and pick up on that dynamic: that Carl has to get in there; get between us. That’s no easy task, that’s for sure. We’re into our second year with Carl after a bit of a rotating thing with players coming in and out. Carl’s played every gig with us for over a year now. He’s locked in now and it’s been great.
What’s made him great?
Carl’s a psychedelic warrior. The Bayou Buddha. The Allstars really like to stretch out. We improvise a lot. Carl really knows how to listen and improvise.
I remember first seeing Carl with you as part of North Mississippi Osborne. He was with Anders Osborne at the time, and you did a marathon show at the Troubadour, with Paul Barrere (Little Feat) and Duane Betts sitting in. That was some serious jamming.
Anders is a force of nature. Great dude. Awesome friend. Incredible songwriter. NMO was badass. We need to get that going again, too. I miss it.
Duane’s been a frequent collaborator onstage with the Allstars, including at your most recent show in Los Angeles last month at the Roxy, and guesting on the upcoming Allstars album.
Duane is one of my brothers, man. I’m so proud of Duane. He is just playing better than ever.
And you and Luther played with him and Devon Allman at the annual Allman Family Revival at the Fillmore last December.
For me, it’s so musically gratifying playing that music with Duane, Devon, and Berry (Oakley). It’s just crazy. That music is sacred. What an honor to be asked to do that.