Thirty-three-year-old Luther Dickinson was 5 the first time he saw fife-and-drum master Otha Turner performing on an episode of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. He was a teenager when he came face-to-face with the hill-country bluesman at the Center for Southern Folklore's annual Memphis Music & Heritage Festival and nearly grown when he began attending Turner's legendary goat barbecues, held the last weekend in August on a bare plot of land in Tate County, Mississippi.
"It was Fred McDowell's music that was really my entryway into the scene," explains Dickinson. "I found out Fred and Otha were neighbors and best friends, and when I played Fred's music to Otha, it took our relationship to a whole new level."
McDowell, the guitar virtuoso of the hill-country scene, died in 1972, just months before Dickinson's birth. Nevertheless, his music provided the foundation for Dickinson's band, the North Mississippi Allstars, formed in '96 with his younger brother, Cody Dickinson, on drums, and bassist Chris Chew.
"Our first tape was a tribute to Fred McDowell," says Dickinson. "In '97, I fell in love with R.L. Burnside's music when I went on tour with him and Kenny Brown. Later on, I got into Junior Kimbrough's sound. That's the basis of the hill-country material, and the Allstars' sound evolved by mixing our own originals into the gumbo."
Today, the Allstars, who honed their craft at Junior's Place (Kimbrough's juke joint in Marshall County), on Turner's picnic grounds, and at festivals throughout the region, spend approximately 300 days a year on the road, spreading the gospel of the hill country ("World boogie is coming!" Dickinson's father, famed producer Jim Dickinson, has oft proclaimed) far and wide, performing in clubs, theaters, and arenas and appearing on late-night TV talk shows.
Yet every August, their tour bus points homeward, hurtling back to North Mississippi so that Luther and Cody can play at Otha's picnic in Tate County. Since Turner's death in 2003, the party has continued -- thanks to his daughters and grandchildren, who insist on continuing the fife-and-drum tradition -- but as Luther Dickinson himself admits, "It ain't like it used to be.
"I've come to terms with it, but I definitely went through that whole reflective period after Otha [in '98] and R.L. [in '05] died, when we were working on songs for Electric Blue Watermelon," he says. "I'm just fortunate to have experienced those good times in the hill-country blues scene."
This weekend, Dickinson plans to pay back the cosmic debt by hosting the First Annual Family Reunion Festival at the Tunica Cabaret Resort, located just off U.S. Highway 61 on the Tennessee side of the state line.
"I've learned that all over the world, people continue to be mystified by the fantasy of the South," says Dickinson, who likens the atmosphere of Allstars' stage shows to a "Sunday night, drunk in the cotton fields vibe.
"Ten years ago, the Allstars played our first gig at Barrister's as part of the Dixie Fried festival," he says. "Sometimes, we neglect the home front, so I wanted to do something special to celebrate our anniversary and make it an annual thing. I grew up going to Otha's picnic and Big Momma Burnside's birthday parties, and I think we owe this to the community."
Robert Randolph, Duwayne Burnside, Kenny Brown, Sharde Turner (Otha's granddaughter and the leader of his Rising Star Fife & Drum Band), Jimbo Mathus, and Al Kapone are slated to play, along with Pigs in Space, which savvy Memphis music fans will recognize as an updated version of Mudboy & the Neutrons, the band Jim Dickinson formed with Sid Selvidge and Jimmy Crosthwait, minus guitarist Lee Baker, who was murdered in '96.
"Playing music with Dad is the best feeling in the world," says Dickinson. "I like throwing in stuff I know he likes -- Charlie Freeman's machine-gun licks or Lee Baker's pinched notes."
Snax Memphis promoter Mike Smith, who is co-producing the event with Dickinson, notes that "everyone playing on this date has been influential to the band in some way. They've shared a stage with them or grown up with Luther and Cody. I told our sound guy to be prepared. We'll probably have every musician onstage together at the end of the night."
Smith, who produced the Allstars' gig at Mud Island last year, expects 1,500-2,000 people at the Family Reunion concert. "This is a chance for people to see them on a very intimate basis," he says, citing the "backyard vibe" of hay bales and wagon wheels that will decorate the outdoor setting.
"It's the real deal -- you can feel it," says Scott Bomar, who worked with both the Dickinson and the Burnside families as music supervisor on Craig Brewer's upcoming film, Black Snake Moan. "The music they make is made for dancing and drinking and having a good time. It's infectious. The Allstars could play anywhere in the world, and people are gonna party. At advance screenings [of Black Snake Moan] in L.A., the first thing people say is, 'We love that music.' Then they ask if there is really music like that in Memphis and North Mississippi. I tell 'em yeah, they should come on down."
"Lord willing, it doesn't rain and people come," says Luther Dickinson. "Doing an outdoor show is a big gamble. I don't get nervous playing other shows, but this makes me nervous."