Easier to believe when you learn he released his first platinum record at 15—an age when many young people are just beginning to play music. Lie to Me revealed a talent that transcended the crop of blues prodigies floating around in the late Nineties. No flashy re-hasher of classic blues licks, even at that early age Lang was a full-blown artist with a style of his own. Also, setting Lang apart from the wunderkind crowd was a 15-year-old voice that sounded like a weathered soul shouter. Actual life experience was yet to come, and has been subsequently chronicled in a series of five uniformly excellent recordings. “I got married, had kids, and that arc has been recorded on albums along the way,” says Lang. “There is a lot of personal history in there, and also some things that relate to world events.”
What began as a bluesy sound, influenced by electric pioneers like Albert Collins, B. B. King, and Buddy Guy, evolved over those recordings into a modern R&B style closer to Stevie Wonder and contemporary gospel music. Lang’s distinctive, blues-inflected licks appeared on every album, but became one element in a sea of passionately sung and tightly arranged songs.
Signs is not merely a return the artist’s guitar-based beginnings, but an embodiment of an even more elemental sound. Beyond focusing attention on his soloing prowess, it is about recapturing the spirit of the early blues, where the guitar was front and center, fairly leaping out of the speakers. “A lot of my earlier influences have been coming to the surface, like Robert Johnson, and Howlin’ Wolf,” he reports. “I have been appreciating how raw and unrefined that stuff is. I had an itch to emulate some of that and I think it shows in the songs. Still, I let the writing be what it was and that was sometimes not necessarily the blues.”
In this simpler spirit, Lang, Drew Ramsey, and Shannon Sanders convened in a Los Angeles studio with some melodic and arranging ideas and proceeded to crank out a dozen basic tracks in a few days. With a bit of overdubbing and further recording in L.A. and Nashville, and some further help from Dwan Hill, Dennis Dodd and Josh Kelley, Signs was done. The record, which features funk, rock, and blues elements, is held together by Lang’s distinctive playing and singing, and the lyrics, which center on themes of embattlement and self-empowerment. “Some of the songs are autobiographical, but not usually in a literal way,” Lang explains. “The main goal is for folks to be able to relate to what I went through. If I can’t make it work using just my personal experience, I use my imagination to fill in blanks.”
Starting off the record with a juke joint stomp, “Make It Move” is the singer’s story about going to the mountain rather than waiting for it to come to you. “There have been times in my life where I thought something would take care of itself, when I should have put some effort forth to help it happen,” says Lang. “Being proactive has been a weak spot for me, and the song is about doing your part to get things moving.”
Fueled by some evil guitar sounds, “Snakes” turns the well-known warning about “snakes in the grass” into a poetic tale of a young man dealing with hubris and temptation. “It is mostly about the mistakes I made through not approaching life with humility, and the things I was susceptible to that distracted me,” says Lang. “You are overconfident, thinking you are ready for whatever the world will throw at you, but have no idea some things are affecting you until much later in life.”
The anthemic “Last Man Standing” started with a hook Drew Ramsey brought to the recording date. “We built the song around that premise,” Lang explains. “When I was coming up with lyrics, it was personal, but I don’t want to analyze it too much. I want it to be whatever it is going to be for the listener. That song could be applied to any situation in which you feel like you are struggling.”
Lang breaks out the slide for the title song, “Signs,” which extends outward from personal stories into the dramatic events of today’s world. “I try to disregard politics as much as I can, but it seems like every day when you wake up there is something else crazy going on—not normal crazy, but more like movie script crazy,” he says.
The rampaging guitars and driving groove of “Bitter End” reflect Lang’s frustration with a seemingly endless cycle of history: “Why tear down a wall to build it up again.” But he brings us back up with the lilting affirmation of “Stronger Together,” and the funky exhortation to step “Into the Light.”
A stunning guitar solo marks the Josh Kelly produced “Bring Me Back Home.”
“Josh and I cut six or seven songs together and had a blast doing it,” Lang says. “I am saving the other ones for who knows what, but I definitely wanted that one to be on this record.”
Since the release of his debut album, Grammy Award winning Jonny Lang has built a reputation as one of the best live performers and guitarists of his generation. The path Lang has been on has brought him the opportunity to support or perform with some of the most respected legends in music. He has shared the stage with everyone from The Rolling Stones, B.B. King, Aerosmith and Buddy Guy, who he continues to tour with today.
Fans who discovered Jonny Lang through his searing instrumental work will revel in the huge guitar tones and go for broke solos on Signs, while those who have appreciated his growth as an honest and passionate songwriter will find that honesty and passion unabated. Though he long ago left blues purism behind, Lang has never abandoned its spirit of universal catharsis through the relating of personal trials. Signs reaffirms his commitment to the blues and the guitar without sacrificing the modern approach that has made him such a singular artist.
From the days of playing greasy local juke joints to headlining major festivals, JJ Grey remains an unfettered, blissful performer, singing with a blue-collared spirit over the bone-deep grooves of his compositions. His presence before an audience is something startling and immediate, at times a funk rave-up, other times a sort of mass-absolution for the mortal weaknesses that make him and his audience human. When you see JJ Grey and his band Mofro live—and you truly, absolutely must—the man is fearless.
Onstage, Grey delivers his songs with compassion and a relentless honesty, but perhaps not until Ol’ Glory has a studio record captured the fierceness and intimacy that defines a Grey live performance. “I wanted that crucial lived-in feel,” Grey says of Ol’ Glory, and here he hits his mark. On the new album, Grey and his current Mofro lineup offer grace and groove in equal measure, with an easygoing quality to the production that makes those beautiful muscular drum-breaks sound as though the band has set up in your living room.
Despite a redoubtable stage presence, Grey does get performance anxiety—specifically, when he’s suspended 50 feet above the soil of his pecan grove, clearing moss from the upper trees.
“The tops of the trees are even worse,” he laughs, “say closer to 70, maybe even 80 feet. I’m not phobic about heights, but I don’t think anyone’s crazy about getting up in a bucket and swinging all around. I wanted to fertilize this year but didn’t get a chance. This February I will, about two tons—to feed the trees.”
When he isn’t touring, Grey exerts his prodigious energies on the family land, a former chicken-farm that was run by his maternal grandmother and grandfather. The farm boasts a recording studio, a warehouse that doubles as Grey’s gym, an open-air barn, and of course those 50-odd pecan trees that occasionally require Grey to go airborne with his sprayer.
For devoted listeners, there is something fitting, even affirmative in Grey’s commitment to the land of his north Florida home. The farms and eddying swamps of his youth are as much a part of Grey’s music as the Louisiana swamp-blues tradition, or the singer’s collection of old Stax records.
As a boy, Grey was drawn to country-rockers, including Jerry Reed, and to Otis Redding and the other luminaries of Memphis soul; Run-D.M.C., meanwhile, played on repeat in the parking lot of his high school (note the hip-hop inflections on “A Night to Remember”). Merging these traditions, and working with a blue-collar ethic that brooked no bullshit, Grey began touring as Mofro in the late ’90s, with backbeats that crossed Steve Cropper with
George Clinton and a lyrical directness that made his debut LP Blackwater (2001) a calling-card among roots-rock aficionados. Soon, he was expanding his tours beyond America and the U.K., playing ever-larger clubs and eventually massive festivals, as his fan base grew from a modest group of loyal initiates into something resembling a national coalition.
Grey takes no shortcuts on the homestead, and he certainly takes no shortcuts in his music. While he has metaphorically speaking “drawn blood” making all his albums, his latest effort, Ol’ Glory, found him spending more time than ever working over the new material. A hip-shooting, off-the-cuff performer (often his first vocal takes end up pleasing him best), Grey was able to stretch his legs a bit while constructing the lyrics and vocal lines to Ol’ Glory.
“I would visit it much more often in my mind, visit it more often on the guitar in my house,” Grey says. “I like an album to have a balance, like a novel or like a film. A triumph, a dark brooding moment, or a moment of peace—that’s the only thing I consistently try to achieve with a record.”
Grey has been living this balance throughout his career, and Ol’ Glory is a beautifully paced little film. On “The Island,” Grey sounds like Coleridge on a happy day: “All beneath the canopy / of ageless oaks whose secrets keep / Forever in her beauty / This island is my home.” “A Night to Remember” finds the singer in first-rate swagger: “I flipped up my collar ah man / I went ahead and put on my best James Dean / and you’d a thought I was Clark Gable squinting through that smoke.” And “Turn Loose” has Grey in fast-rhyme mode in keeping with the song’s title: “You work a stride / curbside thumbing a ride / on Lane Avenue / While your kids be on their knees / praying Jesus please.” From the profane to the sacred, the sly to the sublime, Grey feels out his range as a songwriter with ever-greater assurance.
The mood and drive of Ol’ Glory are testament to this achievement. The album ranks with Grey’s very best work; among other things, the secret spirituality of his music is perhaps more accessible here than ever before. On “Everything Is a Song,” he sings of “the joy with no opposite,” a sacred state that Grey describes to me:
“It can happen to anybody: you sit still and you feel things tingling around you, everything’s alive around you, and in that a smile comes on your face involuntarily, and in that I felt no opposite. It has no part of the play of good and bad or of comedy or tragedy. I know it’s just a play on words but it feels like more than just being happy because you got what you wanted — this is a joy. A joy that doesn’t get involved one way or the next; it just is.”
Grey’s most treasured albums include Otis Redding’s In Person at the Whisky a Go Go and Jerry Reed’s greatest hits, and the singer once told me that he grew up “wanting to be Jerry Reed but with less of a country, more of a soul thing.” With Ol’ Glory, Grey does his idols proud. It’s a country record where the stories are all part of one great mystery; it’s a blues record with one foot in the church; it’s a Memphis soul record that takes place in the country.
In short, Ol’ Glory is that most singular thing, a record by JJ Grey—the north Florida sage and soul-bent swamp rocker.
North Mississippi Allstars are back with PRAYER FOR PEACE and couldn’t we all use one of those right about now? Founded in 1996 by brothers Luther (guitar and vocals) and Cody Dickinson (drums, piano, synth bass, programming and vocals), the now venerable band are entering their third decade with perhaps the most vital album of their career. Recorded in studios across America during North Mississippi Allstars’ 2016 tour, PRAYER FOR PEACE sees the Dickinsons weaving their bred-to-the-bone musical sensibility with unstoppable energy, rhythmic reinvention, and a potent message of positivity, family, and hope. As ever, songs like R.L. Burnside’s “Long Haired Doney” and the impassioned title track pay homage to the country blues legacy while simultaneously pushing it into contemporary relevance with fatback funk, electronic innovation, slippery soul, and pure unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll.
“This is a very exciting time for North Mississippi Allstars,” Cody says. “There’s been this explosion of creativity lately and it’s encouraging that for a band who has been around for twenty years now, our music is as vital and fresh as ever. It’s like the opposite of burnout – I can’t explain why but it feels totally brand new again.”
“The blues is not children’s music,” Luther says. “We get better at it, the older we get. We’re so fortunate to be able to do it.”
PRAYER FOR PEACE continues the burst of inspiration begun with 2013’s Earth-shaking WORLD BOOGIE IS COMING. That album, the band’s seventh studio recording, proved the planetary sensation its title promised, with The Guardian simply declaring it the North Mississippi Allstars’ “best yet.”
“With WORLD BOOGIE we decided to tear the house down and rebuild it,” Cody says. “In the process we were able to tap into what makes North Mississippi Allstars tick. What we do is, we look to the past with reverence and respect but we fearlessly forge ahead into the future. We’re deeply steeped in American roots music but we are very much a modern band. We are at our best when we’re exploring both at the same time.”
Though they had been making music together all their lives, WORLD BOOGIE IS COMING saw the Dickinsons advance as a true artistic partnership, striking a wholly democratic balance between Luther’s raw, organic aesthetic and Cody’s passion for electronics and programming. The album was followed by a remarkable run of extracurricular efforts, including solo projects, collaborations, soundtrack contributions, and documentary film production.
“We used to filter every experiment, every new interest, every aesthetic idea, into the Allstars,” Luther says, “because we were so focused on the one band. Now that we’ve spread our wings and have other outlets, everything can just breathe and be itself. We know what we’re supposed to do so we can just go in and do it.”
“It’s like a release,” Cody says. “All this music and all these ideas build up and you’ve got to get them out. Being able to record them and document them allows us to move on creatively.”
A notoriously hard touring band from the start, North Mississippi Allstars had long considered ways to maximize their time on the road by recording as much as possible while traveling America and beyond. When time came to follow up WORLD BOOGIE IS COMING, the Dickinsons decided to make the idea a reality.
“Having our studio here in Mississippi has always been a great resource for us,” Cody says. “It’s kept our music grounded, but at the same time, I have always wanted to do what I think of as ‘field recordings,’ of us on tour, on location, wherever we were.”
The Allstars spent much of 2016 lighting up studios in St. Louis, Kansas City, New Orleans, Brooklyn, Austin, and of course, their legendary father Jim Dickinson’s Zebra Ranch in the Allstars’ own Hernando, MS. Sold out shows were followed the next morning with equally intense sessions, the band quickly banging out tracks infused with the same high energy as they bring to the stage.
“Our dad was a big fan of capturing that initial moment of creation and inception,” Cody says. “There’s a real strength in building up the material onstage, having it crowd-tested, and then just going in and laying it down.”
“We do it so fast,” Luther says. “We go in and record four or five tunes in a couple of hours. In and out. It’s not belabored, it’s raw and fresh and live, we’re dripping sweat and in the moment. That’s why it has that electric psychedelic feel. We just go in there and let it all hang out, clean up the mess later. We don’t even listen to playbacks – we just play, play, play and then split.”
The majority of PRAYER FOR PEACE was co-produced at Memphis’ famed Royal Studios alongside the great Boo Mitchell – himself the son of a legend in producer/Hi Records founder Willie Mitchell.
“Boo is such a magical music man,” Luther says, “and that studio is so inspiring and grounding. You would think singing on Al Green’s mic would be intimidating but it’s not! It’s reassuring. Royal is just a wonderful, wonderful studio.”
“We have always identified with other second and third generation artists,” says Cody and to be sure North Mississippi Allstars have long allied with the families of Hill Country icons like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. PRAYER FOR PEACE continues the tradition, with contributions from Graeme Lesh (Midnight North, The Terrapin Family Band) and singer/fife player Shardé Thomas, daughter of Mississippi blues giant Otha Turner. A number of other friends also join the congregation, among them legendary bassist Oteil Burbridge (Allman Brothers Band, Dead & Company), vocalist Sharisse Norman, and bassist Dominic Davis (Jack White).
As ever, PRAYER FOR PEACE sees the Allstars putting their indelible stamp on classic blues numbers and folk traditionals, including Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “61 Highway” and “You Got To Move,” the latter featuring smoking hot accompaniment from Hill Country guitar hero Kenny Brown and award-winning singer/bassist Danielle Nicole.
“I think it’s our responsibility to the community that brought us up to protect the repertoire,” Luther says. “To keep the repertoire alive and vibrant. That’s what folk music is about. It’s an oral history of America. My dad and his friends, they learned from Furry Lewis and Gus Cannon and Will Shade and then taught those songs to us. It’s important for us to write songs and experiment and do other things, but playing our community’s music in a modern way is what Cody and I do best. I think it’s what we were meant to do.”
True as always to the blues tradition, North Mississippi Allstars use the basic structures taught to them as the starting point for improvisation and contemporary interpretation, an approach that inextricably links them to a long line of American visionary artists like the Grateful Dead. PRAYER FOR PEACE includes a trio of traditional songs long associated with The Dead including “Stealin,” “Bid You Goodnight” and “Deep Ellum” – the latter featuring a rare lead vocal from Cody.
“”There’s so many common tunes in The Dead’s repertoire that we learned from our dad,” Luther says. “‘Bid You Goodnight’ and ‘Stealin’,’ we’ve been playing them our whole life. Original music aside, Dad’s band – Mud Boy & The Neutrons – were kind of doing the same thing as The Dead, playing improvisational versions of roots music. They had an electric psychedelic side and they had a jug band side. So my whole life, acoustic guitar or electric guitar, they’re both sides of the same coin.”
Where PRAYER FOR PEACE truly builds upon the repertoire is with a number of Luther-penned originals. “Prayer For Peace” is among North Mississippi Allstars’ most immediate new songs, a beat-crazy appeal for unity that like the band itself, stands as a righteous celebration of multiculturalism, inclusion, and compassion. Topical though it may be, both Dickinsons assert the album’s goal transcends simple politics.
“It’s not a protest record,” Cody says. “Its message is to bring people together. My dad used to say North Mississippi Allstars make a statement just by walking on stage.”
“We’re not a political band,” Luther says. “I’m not good at that type of thing. One thing R.L. Burnside taught us was that you can play the saddest song in the world, but if you do it with a smile on your face, you can make a whole roomful of people dance. That’s what this record is about. Making people dance. Making them want to rub up against each other.”
That seemingly modest but oh-so-necessary objective will keep the Dickinsons on the road they love for the foreseeable future, ideally recording another LP while continuing to shake audiences young and old with genuine, unadulterated blues power. PRAYER FOR PEACE affirms North Mississippi Allstars’ own unique place in the American musical tradition, simultaneously master curators, expert revivalists, and forward-thinking pioneers. Long may they run.
“Now it’s time to hit the road,” Luther Dickinson says. “Get to work and spread the word. We recorded this one in the spirit of our twentieth anniversary. Now we’re looking towards our twenty-fifth. Twenty years is alright but twenty five is monumental.”
“This is a new beginning for North Mississippi Allstars,” says Cody Dickinson. “This revitalizing cascade of creativity and explosion of music, it’s just been incredible. And I feel like we’re just getting started. There’s a long beautiful road ahead of us. We’re only just now hitting our stride.”