Whether or not the North Mississippi Allstars would agree that their latest, Up and Rolling, plays like a concept album- in that it’s a tribute to and update of the folk and electric blues music of their homeground- there is no doubting it’s a purposefully executed study of time and place. Luther and Cody Dickinson- the sibling pair behind it all- have long been champions of the sounds indigenous to the hill country where they grew up, and to the deceased heroes of the music, like Otha Turner, Junior Kimbrough, and their father, Jim Dickinson, to name three. With Carl Dufrene on bass, a duo of vocals from Sharde Thomas and Sharisse Norman, and a batch of special guests, NMA merge classics with inspired originals for a slinky, sometimes druggy, sometimes provocative journey through North Mississippi.
The opening “Call That Gone” starts with the familiar lockstep groove the Dickinson brothers share seemingly as a birthright, but it’s the appearance of Turner’s granddaughter Thomas on fife that takes it immediately to a different place sonically. Luther’s slide and coercive vocal doubled by the high-pitched puffs from Thomas’ bamboo pipe, and her sultry voice answering Luther, magnetically pull in, snake dancing with Cody’s relentless snare and Dufrene’s pulsing bottom end. It’s a killer combination that swirls around while it stings, leading the ear through the spaces to meet each of the ensemble.
Excavating nuggets of culture and soul, a subtle but detectable diversity permeates the record; taking the hippy trip on the title track; welcoming R&B/gospel queen Mavis Staple’s on her family’s gem, “What You Gonna Do?”; following Jason Isbell and Duane Betts as they weave through the countrified jam of “Mean Old World,” a track once graced by Eric Clapton and Duane Allman during the Layla sessions.
The Allstars drop in two from RL Burnside- the winking “Peaches” and “Out on the Road,” the latter featuring RL’s grandson, Cedric. And there is a pair of originals- “Bump that Mother” and “Living Free,” sounding like Schoolhouse Rock meets the juke joint; the former conflating having fun in the backseat with burning the stars and bars off the Mississippi flag. Give NMA a nod for getting funky and political.
The coda, as it were, is a quick, lo-fi snippet of Otha singing his “Bye Bye Baby.” It’s raw and sweet and more than enough history wrapped up in 38 seconds to understand why the North Mississippi Allstars care so much for this music, and carry it, with their friends, for the next generation.