Before I knew anything about “Keys to the Kingdom,” by the North Mississippi Allstars, I listened and I got it. It’s roots. It’s family. It’s dying and living. It’s real.

My dad would have turned 81 last week. He died in 2005. Every year before and after his death, whether or not we’re in the same place, I share a beer with him on his birthday. I had been listening to “Keys to the Kingdom,” which came out earlier this month and thought, “Man, this is all about Dad.”

And it was, although not just my dad.

Brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson wrote, produced and released a CD of 12 heartfelt tracks of blues, country and rock as of way of dealing with their own father’s death and celebrating his life. Besides the emotional story behind the music, the songs are probably the best American roots music that’s come out in a very long time. Maybe since the North Mississippi Allstar’s first album, “Shake Hands With Shorty,” in 2000.

The names probably sound familiar. Luther Dickinson also plays lead guitar for The Black Crowes, one of the few truly rock ‘n’ roll bands from this generation. The Black Crowes’ album “Before the Frost … Until the Freeze,” from 2009, should be in your collection if you’re a classic rock fan.

Jim Dickinson died in 2009, within a year of his grandson’s birth. Luther was doing his Black Crowes thing. Brother Cody was playing with his band, Hill Country Revue. Jim had always been about the music, having played and recorded on his own and with Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. He had a couple of requests at the end of his life, one of which was that the brothers play together.

The North Mississippi Allstars actually formed as a Southern rock/blues jam band in 1996, with Luther on guitar and vocals, Cody on drums and Chris Chew on bass. Their style is simple, raw, young with a rare and healthy respect to tradition, and unpretentious. What I love about their music is that it provides much needed perspective after I get tangled up in the head games of volunteer committees, professional aspirations and life’s pettiness in general. Chew calls it “grown folks music.”

Listening to “Keys to the Kingdom,” I can hear my dad’s cussed honesty in “Jumpercable Blues” and yell along “Well, well, All y’all can go straight to hell.” (Insert Southern language lesson here: all y’all is the accepted plural for y’all. And as an aside, fathers, regardless of their progenies’ ages, are referred to as daddy. As in, “Em, this is your daddy calling.” Or when the local law enforcement stops you and asks, “Who’s your daddy? — the equivalent of “Who’s your people?”)

You can clearly hear the North Mississippi Allstars people in the strutting gospel track “The Meeting” with guest vocals gifts from Mavis Staples. The music mellows in “How I wish My Train Would Come” with a stripped-down sound reminiscent of early Rolling Stones and recent Peter Wolf. “Hear the Hills” brings a beautiful acceptance of inevitable death with every verse, and the chorus, in particular: “I have seen proof of God and I don’t mind dying.” The song “Ain’t No Grave” pays proper tribute with the lines “I would hope to be as brave as he was on judgment day” — and Cooder playing guitar.

And one more thing the boys needed to do for their father. Jim thought Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” could be played as a one-chord hill country blues song. And that’s what the Allstars did as the only cover on the album and a promise kept to their father. I think their daddy knew what he was talking about. Risking blasphemy, I’ll say that having lived in Memphis myself, the song sounds better than Dylan’s original.

The good thing about death is that there was and will be life. The Allstars have some twisted fun with “New Orleans Walkin’ Dead,” that epitomizes the parade-marching New Orleans zombie obsession. And, finally, the album breaks out in irreverent celebration with “Jellyrollin’ All Over Heaven.” I’ll let you listen to it for yourself so can have something to look forward to.

Emily Tuttle is a freelance writer living in Minot. Her e-mail address is [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.