Interview with North Mississippi Allstar's Luther Dickinson

What current or future project are you most excited about?

Scoring the soundtrack to Berlin: Symphony of a Great City was the most inspired and innocent music I have made in decades. 

Though I was commissioned to simply accompany the movie on guitar, the movie demanded a score, which I composed on the piano and on toy wind instruments. I recorded the score at home or at friends’ houses. All the instruments I used—the mellotron, celesta, or vibes—were a first-time revelation for me. 

I believe in the freedom of limitations, and so I always set parameters for my musical projects, whether they’re stylistic or technological or musical. The parameters I set for Berlin were focused on the keys that physically dominate the guitar and the piano and the ways in which the keys and instruments relate.  

C major and the relative A minor are so naturally easy and friendly to play (and listen to) on guitar and piano. F# major pentatonic and its relative minor Eb are all black keys on the piano; if you tune your guitar down a half-step, these keys dominate the first position of the guitar as well. 

These four keys are all related by another harmonic phenomenon: the Tritone (or the flat fifth, the devil’s interval), which perfectly divides the western octave in half. On the piano, C major is all white keys and its tritone F#, all black keys; this divide defined the harmonic theme of the score. The tritone became a useful device that seemed to portray the abstract, visual rhythm that’s a main character in Berlin. 

What is your favorite guitar that you own?

There are so many spread about my life, and I love them all for different reasons, but I recently designed a signature model Gibson 335. There were only 250 of them made and it is a "Am I dreaming?" guitar.


If you could own one guitar that you don't already own, what would it be?

Something extremely valuable that I could sell to invest in my family's future.


Do you have a favorite lyricist?

In the last two years I’ve fallen under the spell of Robert Hunter. I produced a record of new songs he co-wrote with Jim Lauderdale, and Hunter's lyrics blew my mind. Hunter's lyrics in the Grateful Dead songbook are also amazing. His use of the American vernacular is masterful, comparable only to Bob Dylan. His songs are well-loved and rightfully so. He truly participates in the oral tradition.


If you could perform with one living person, who would it be?

Jack White is a huge inspiration and motivator to me. He is so giving and forthright in his interviews that I have learned a great deal from him, even though we’ve never worked together. 


If you could perform with one person no longer alive, who would it be?

My father, who taught my brother and me southern roots music from behind his piano; the music we made together left this earth with him. 


If you weren't performing music, what would you most like to do?

I would love to be outside, building things and farming or gardening.


How do you typically discover new music?

Keep my ears open. I love all the artists of my generation, all doing their own take on our shared influences: Jason Isbell, Justin Townes Earle, Amos Lee, Ray LaMontagne, Jack White, Beck, Glove.


Most influential album for you currently?

Fontessa by the Modern Jazz Quartet.  

I heard MJQ's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" at a friend's house and it slayed me. So I dug into my father's record collection and there was Fontessa, of course! My daughter and I listen to classical music and jazz pianists: Ahmad Jamal, Vince Guaraldi, Mose Allison, Monk, and Dave Brubeck. So, MJQ Fontessa eased right onto her turntable very naturally. 

This was a month or so before the scoring of Berlin, which demanded piano. It's hilarious; if you play a diminished chord on the piano with an arpeggio on the left hand bass, you have instant silent film music! 


All-time favorite venue to perform in?

The Overton Park Levitt Shell in Memphis, TN, means a lot to our family. Our mother grew up across from the park listening to the music. Our father saw Elvis there as a kid and first performed there himself in the early ‘60s.


What was your most memorable Eureka moment (in a performance context)? 

One night the whole concept of the groove came to me during a concert; in my mind, I saw the groove as the huge inter-working of a clock, everyone in time together, all the musicians connected through each other as their own grooves interlocked and spun. This groove clock was not rigid but elastic, capable of moving/adjusting to make it all fit together and keep rolling. 


(Luther Dickinson and David Spelman, backstage at the Ellnora Festival)


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