One day in about the year 2000 or 2001, I received a valuable invitation. More than that, it was an education and an initiation. A musically hip friend of mine from Chicago was heading to Memphis for a show at the kind of joint you’d have a hard time finding without an insider’s guidance. For one strange and magic night, some of the core artists of North Mississippi hill country blues were playing at an out-of-the-way bar called The Madison Flame. It was the first time I experienced the late great Otha Turner’s fife-and-drum ensemble, which paraded around the room with roiling snares and marching band bass drum. Raspy, rascally T-Model Ford (deceased this year sadly) played stopmy electric original songs like “Chicken Head Man.” And capping it off was a relatively new, mixed-race band called the North Mississippi Allstars.
In the brand new, Tennessee-focused issue of the Oxford American music issue, legendary Memphis music guru Jim Dickinson writes at length from beyond the grave. And part of his mesmerizing 17,000 word essay (excerpted from of a forthcoming memoir) is a bit about the Allstars, formed in 1996 by his sons Luther (guitar/vocal) and Cody (drums). He opens the chapter with a scene from Bonnaroo in the early 2000s, a set I remember and one I credit with busting wide open the secret world of primal rhythm and bone marrow passion that is the fine folk art of hill country blues. Here’s how the elder Dickinson, who joined the band that day, remembers it: “We rocked like a Lazy Boy recliner on the back porch of some backwoods double-wide. This was my son Luther’s vision realized. A traveling Dream Carnival of Southern culture and life-style evolved from the Memphis Country Blues Festival of the 60s, the punk rock-blues fusion of the 90s, Otha Turner’s goat barbecue picnics and Sunday nights at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint.”
The Dream Carnival arrives at Roots on Wednesday, as the Allstars play not one but two sets. Their show-closing featured appearance will focus on their new album, which takes its title from Jim Dickinson’s famous salutation, World Boogie Is Coming. Raw, spontaneous and true to its tradition, it’s being hailed as the band’s masterwork. And besides that, NMA will perform with our own Jim Lauderdale in a set of songs from his new collaboration with the band called Black Roses. The album was recorded at the NMA’s home-base studio the Zebra Ranch, built by Jim Dickinson, an underground Americana landmark. It takes Jim’s always present undertone of soul and thrusts it to the fore, with greasy beats and frayed guitars.
And folks, there’s much more set up for this brilliant night; in fact it’s one of the most distinguished lineups we’ve ever featured. As well as one of our bluesiest.
We are lucky indeed to have Bobby Rush coming to visit. The 74-year-old is one of the most outrageous entertainers in blues music. I don’t know what he has planned for Wednesday when he appears in front of hard-touring band and frequent collaborators Blind Dog Smokin’, but if experience is any judge, there will be high-riding horns and booty-shaking dancing girls. Where the Allstars make raw, rural folk blues focused around slide guitar and drums, Rush brings a bigger, arranged sound with hard-edged funk and sly lyrics about late-night doings. It’s going to be slightly salacious fun.
If you’d told me I’d be briefing you on Americana stars John Fullbright and Sarah Jarosz this far down a column, I’d have said you were nuts. But that’s how rich this show is. Jarosz is one of the most striking and important young artists in new acoustic music. She’s generally categorized as bluegrass, but her searching, enriching vision and songwriting scope have already carried her far beyond the high lonesome or the rural. She could have been a Greenwich Village 50s folk revivalist or a Laurel Canyon country rock star. Instead she’s in today vanguard of what some people call simply MUSIC, with three amazing albums (including the new Build Me Up From Bones) and a couple of very fresh Grammy nominations. (Congrats!)
John Fullbright is a phenom whose career only really kicked off in 2009 but who is now receiving awards and kudos from the highest level of song gurus. When Jimmy Webb hands you an ASCAP lyric award and calls you “one of the best writers I have heard in a long time,” that’s pretty heavy and that actually happened. John’s studio debut is a wonder called From The Ground Up, with sizzling tunes like the grand “Jericho” and the funky, folky “All The Time In The World.” He made a memorable appearance at this Fall’s Americana Honors & Awards at the Ryman, where he was nominated for best emerging artist. Best, schmest. He’s emerging fast and beautifully and he’ll be on your radar in a big way in 2014 if he’s not already.
I don’t even know how to prepare for this week. I could interview any one of these artists for an hour or more. They span the world of roots music, stylistically, regionally and generationally. And that’s what World Boogie means to us.