Luther Dickinson says the North Mississippi Allstars' new "Keys to the Kingdom" was "in lot of ways the easiest record I've ever made," even though it was spurred by one of the worst periods of his life.
Dickinson came up with most of the material for the group's first studio album in three years during the summer of 2009, while his father -- the legendary producer, writer and artist Jim Dickinson -- lay dying in a Memphis hospital. "The summer of '09 was just brutal," Dickinson, whose wife was also pregnant at the time with the couple's now 15-month-old daughter, tells Billboard.com. "It was just the most intense life I'd ever experienced. The songs just started writing themselves, to be honest. I think my emotional and mental process was dealing with being devastated even before he died, and I guess as a creative person it just came through me.
"In no way would I ever have planned to make such a raw, brutally honest record, but the songs just kept coming. It's a wonderful state to be in, even if the reason why isn't so great." And yet, Dickinson and his brother, drummer Cody, set out to make "Keys to the Kingdom," which comes out Feb. 1, more celebratory than mournful -- a tone inspired directly his father.
"He bestowed that upon us, for sure," Luther recalls. "He wrote this piece that he wanted to be read at his (funeral): 'I refuse to celebrate death. I will always be there as long as the music lingers. I'm just dead, I'm not gone.' Hopefully that's what people feel on this album."
Listeners will also feel the hand of Jim Dickinson on "Keys to the Kingdom's" lone cover, of Bob Dylan's "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again." "He couldn't talk...but he would communicate with us by writing on a pad we kept around his bed," Dickinson recalls. "He got across to me the idea to do 'Stuck Inside of Mobile...' as a one-chord hill country drone. I said, 'That's a great idea. We'll do it.' It took me a while, but we finally got the arrangement together. So he was staying creative right up until the end."
The Dickinsons -- who since 2009 have worked separately in the Black Crowes (Luther) and Hill Country Revue (Cody) -- recorded "Keys to the Kingdom" during the spring of 2010 at their Zebra Ranch Studio in Coldwater, Miss., overdubbing bassist Chris Chew later. The album features a variety of guests, including Mavis Staples on the set's oldest song, "The Meeting," Ry Cooder on "Ain't No Grave," Big Sugar's Gordie Johnson on "Jumpercable Blues" and Spooner Oldham, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jack Ashford of Motown's Funk Brothers throughout.
"Most of the guests are of dad's generation, which we've never done before," Dickinson notes. "Usually our guests have been our friends, people we were touring with or who were friends of who are closer to our age. Spooner was dad's favorite piano player, so that was fun because I made that traditional drive to Muscle Shoals and went to Fame Studios. I'd never been there before. That was really cool."
The Dickinsons are currently touring as a duo, opening for Robert Plant and his Band of Joy. NMAs will start a "proper" tour on Feb. 23 in Lawrence, Kan., and spend most of the year on the road, according to Dickinson, including a run of festivals during the summer broken only by the Crowes' two-week European tour in July.