Jim Dickinson is a walking, talking paradox. The accomplished musician practically lives in the recording studio, producing acts like the Replacements (Pleased to Meet Me), Big Star (Third/Sister Lovers), and Alvin Youngblood Hart (Start with the Soul) and playing with the Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers), Bob Dylan (Time Out of Mind), and Aretha Franklin (Spirit in the Dark), yet he hasn't cut an album of his own in 30 years.
Free Beer Tomorrow, released Tuesday, October 22nd, changes that. "I got involved in other people's careers," Dickinson explains. "By the time Dixie Fried came out -- it was released in 1972, but I cut it in '70 -- I was playing with Ry Cooder, basically lost in his career. So I never did anything about it, even though I started out as an artist. Now, I've come full circle."
We're at Zebra Ranch, his Coldwater, Mississippi, recording studio. It's late one Wednesday night, and while this interview is being conducted, a photographer from GQ magazine circles Dickinson, getting shots for an upcoming fashion spread. "This studio is the part of it that makes sense to me. I've spent most of my career here," Dickinson says, unfazed by the flash of the camera. "That's what they used to call it -- being a recording artist." He laughs and says, "It doesn't seem to be quite as valid a concept anymore, but I'm still stuck with it."
While the music on Free Beer Tomorrow was completed more than a year ago, it's taken the always dubious Dickinson this long to find a label he was willing to work with. Artemis snatched up the project with good reason: This album might be a modern-day classic, a sweeping, all-encompassing piece of Americana along the lines of Willie Nelson's Stardust. "I didn't write any of Free Beer Tomorrow," Dickinson tells me. "It's all songs I've collected through the years. I've literally had some of them since Dixie Fried, ready to record for 30 years."
A gruff-voiced pianist, Dickinson's style on this album will draw comparisons to New Orleans institution Dr. John, particularly on cuts like the funky "Well of Love" and the rollicking "JC's NYC Blues." But Dickinson is a Memphis boy, and he swings rather than struts, employing a barrelhouse rhythm that's far more blues than jazz. He growls like Blind Willie Johnson on tunes like "Bound to Lose" and the irrepressible "Asshole" and out-and-out boogies on the ethereally soulful "Hungry Town." "I play some rhythm guitar on 'Hungry Town,'" Dickinson says. "That's a Chuck Prophet song that I kinda rewrote. He had three or four different demo versions of the song, and I put 'em together and personalized it."
The second half of the album showcases Dickinson's subtle country charm as he reworks Blaze Foley's "If I Could Only Fly" into a breathtaking ballad, delivers the masterful folk epic "Billy & Oscar," and, finally, takes us "Home." Mandolin, pedal-steel guitar, and Dickinson's own weary piano chords all chime together to provide a sentimental end to the journey, proving once and for all that Free Beer Tomorrow is worth the wait.
"If I had to pick my favorite song in the world, 'If I Could Only Fly' would be it," Dickinson says. "When I was recording Calvin Russell, I got into the Blaze Foley material pretty heavily. What a wonderful song "
Dickinson closes his eyes, lost in thought. When he continues, his already warm voice is fired with compassion for the late songwriter. "You know," he says, "Blaze was homeless, and he went from woman to woman and couch to couch. That's just the way he lived. And that's the meaning of all his songs. But they're also about something else. And this song is about mental illness. It's not obvious, but that's what I think it's about. He was a schizophrenic, and I think he knew it. And that's what he's talking about."
"I've gotta pack. I'm headed to New York to play with Roscoe [roots-rocker Eric Ambel] this weekend," Dickinson says, signaling an end to the interview. "I'm gonna play at the Lakeside Lounge, do some press and public radio." When asked if his sons Luther and Cody will accompany him, Dickinson's eyes twinkle. "Since my band has grown up and gone on the road, I guess I'm back to playing solo," he says, smiling big for another photo. Snickering, he adds, "And I can keep all the money!"
Andria Lisle covers local music news and notes each week in Local Beat. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.