For the past decade or so, Cody Dickinson has spent most of his time keeping the beat for the North Mississippi Allstars, the blues-rock trio he formed with his guitar hero brother Luther and bassist Chris Chew. But when the band took a long break last year for Luther to join up as a hired gun with the Black Crowes, it presented an opportunity for Cody to shake things up for himself.
The fruits of his labor will be presented this week at Minglewood Hall when Cody's new band, Hill Country Revue, celebrates the release of its debut album, Make a Move, in a dual concert with the Allstars.
"I was a little unsure of what I was going to do," Dickinson says of the Allstars' hiatus. "But I made the conscious decision to continue on the same path. So I decided to form a new band. I saw this as a great opportunity to work with some great musicians, so I basically went through my mental Rolodex, got some guys together, and started making music to see what would happen."
Hill Country Revue — the name comes from the title of an Allstars live record and was chosen by a landslide public vote on Dickinson's website — began as a four-piece band with Dickinson on drums, Chew on bass, and North Mississippi mainstay Garry Burnside and Beale stalwart Kirk Smithhart on guitar.
"I had never seen Kirk on Beale Street," Dickinson says. "I think the time when he was ruling Beale Street was right after the Allstars got signed and left. We used to have a regular gig at Blues Hall, and I think Kirk may have actually been the guy who came in and replaced us. Once [the Allstars' debut album] 'Shake Hands With Shorty' came out, I was gone. I was out of touch locally for years."
Instead, Dickinson connected with Smithhart through hearing him play in a band at the nondenominational Fellowship Memphis. "I literally found him in church," Dickinson says.
Once the core of the band was in place, Dickinson decided the band needed a true lead singer and brought in Daniel Robert Coburn, who had fronted the Flint, Michigan-based Southern rock band Dixie Hustler, whom Dickinson had previously worked with as a producer.
Coburn was, according to Dickinson, "the best singer I knew." Dixie Hustler recently had disbanded, so Coburn was very amenable to the offer.
"I had to call in the big guns from Michigan," Dickinson says. "Dan had pipes, and we needed him. As soon as he realized how serious this band was, he moved here. It was a big commitment."
With that the band recorded a demo and hit the road, first playing a series of residencies in cities such as Atlanta, Birmingham, and Oxford, then going out on a cross-country tour with JJ Grey & Mofro. At that point, Burnside's place in the band started to look a little shaky.
"Garry's an amazing musician, a prolific songwriter, and a family man with his own band, so I could see that it wasn't going to be in the cards for him to tour with us. When I realized that, I had to make a decision and called in Edward Hot Cleveland [who had played with Eric Gales, among others] to play drums and made the move to guitar myself," Dickinson says.
Burnside remains a non-touring member and "spiritual guide" for the band, writing or co-writing seven of Make a Move's 10 songs and playing guitar or bass on about half the record.
The lineup in place, things fell together quickly. An early demo of the R.L. Burnside song "Alice Mae" was picked up for satellite radio, and demos on the band's MySpace page spurred a call from the venerable roots label Razor & Tie, which eventually signed the band and released Make a Move.
The final product is similar to the Allstars sound but a bit heavier, with Coburn's powerful vocals perhaps the biggest difference.
"There's an urgency and vitality to our hill-country [blues] that's fresh," Dickinson says. "It's more aggressive, more in-your-face. It's not as traditional. It's rock-and-roll, man."
When Hill Country Revue celebrates the release of Make a Move Friday, May 22nd, at Minglewood Hall, it will be a family affair.
The South Memphis String Band, a new venture of Luther Dickinson, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Jimbo Mathus, will open the show. Hill Country Revue will come on next for an extended set, hopefully interrupted by a look at $5 Cover, which will be broadcasting two episodes featuring Cody Dickinson this week. After that, Dickinson moves back behind the drum kit for an Allstars set, before the Hill Country crew comes back out for a mammoth closing jam.
Hill Country Revue "Make a Move" CD-Release Show
with the North Mississippi Allstars and
South Memphis String Band
Friday, May 22nd
$18 in advance, $20 day of show; 7 p.m.