Luther Dickinson has always played nice with others, but the North Mississippi Allstars mainstay has never played with so many others as he does on Solstice, the first outing by Luther Dickinson and Sisters of the Strawberry Moon, an all-star collective that includes Amy Helm, Amy LaVere, Sharde Thomas, Birds of Chicago and the Como Mamas.
“I never intended to have my name on it,” Dickinson tells Billboard. “I just wanted to curate and produce it, and New West [Records] agreed to it. But when it came time to realize it, they wanted to put my name on it, and that’s just fine. I just wanted to get the artists together.” The album, out Friday, premieres below a day early.
The idea for Sisters of the Strawberry Moon hatched about three years ago in Chicago, when Dickinson was playing a show with LaVere, Thomas and Birds of Chicago — “a fortuitous meeting” during which the acts “became friends and started scheming and dreaming and make the plan to record everybody at my place in Mississippi,” he says. The eventual session was held over four days during the actual Strawberry Moon of the summer solstice at the Dickinson family’s Zebra Ranch Studio in Independence, Miss., and Dickinson likens it to “a musical potluck dinner — a group of interesting new friends that just brought different things to the table, anything and everything.”
Solstice certainly is a diverse aural feast, starting with Birds of Chicago’s smooth “Superlover” sliding into the Hill Country first line rhythm of Thomas’ “Fly With Me.” LaVere’s “Hallelujah (I’m a Dreamer)” veers into Tejano territory. Birds’ “Kathy,” LaVere’s “The Night is Still Young” and Thomas’ “We Made It” are soulful pop delights, while Helm gets a twang on for “Like a Songbird.” And the Como Mamas, a Mississippi vocal troupe on the Dap-Tone label, take it to church with a capella treats such as “Hold To His Hand” and “Search Me.” “We tried to record them with a band, but it was so much better by itself,” Dickinson recalls. “It really filled the room. We didn’t need anything on it but their voices.
“The whole thing just tapped into this funky Mississippi folk-rock acoustic aesthetic we’ve built at our place,” Dickinson continues. “It’s not just the cast of characters but the orchestration — Amy Helm on mandolin, Allison (Russell of Birds of Chicago) plays clarinet, we’ve got nylon string banjo, Mississippi fife and drum. Amy LaVere brought upright bass. I play on top of it. We just put it all together and it worked out great.”
Dickinson hopes to make the collective a going concern, though the prospects for live shows is a greater challenge. “That would take a lot,” acknowledges Dickinson, who released another album, Amour, earlier this year with Colin Linden and is finishing a new North Mississippi Allstars album that features a guest vocal from Mavis Staples. “I would love to do it, but it’s so hard to get everybody’s schedules together. And for it to be affordable, it’s just impossible. But Amy LaVere and Sharde and I, it’s a great chemistry. We’ll always make records and play together, and playing with Birds of Chicago and Amy Helm, that’s really taken on a life of its own, so I’d be surprised if we don’t all get together again.”