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Keys to the Kingdom

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Album Review

Keys to the Kingdom is the most personal recording in the North Mississippi Allstars catalog. That said, "personal" doesn't mean "quiet." It was recorded at their home Zebra Studios in the aftermath of Cody and Luther Dickinson's father, musician, producer, and Southern music historian Jim Dickinson's passing and the birth of Luther's first child. The words "Produced for Jim Dickinson" that adorn the album's back sleeve offer a hint as to the album's sound. The metallic sheen that permeated 2008's Hernando has been stripped away to make room for the most stripped-down recording since the band's debut album, Shake Hands with Shorty. The sounds here have been informed by Cody and bassist Chris Chew's side project, the Hill Country Revue, and Luther's involvement with the Black Crowes and the South Memphis String Band. The latter released the Grammy-nominated Home Sweet Home. Also nominated for a Grammy (and influential here) is Onward & Upward, cut by the brothers under the moniker of Luther Dickinson & the Sons of Mudboy, a few days after their father's funeral. "This A'Way" kicks things off with a raw, bluesy, barroom rocker à la the Rolling Stones (circa Exile), with Spooner Oldham's pounding upright piano keeping time through the changes just under the blazing guitars, the crackling snare, and the hi-hat. "Jumpercable Blues" is a rowdy, pissed-off, down-home blues with Gordie Johnson's guitar teaming with Luther's. "The Meeting" is swampy, gutbucket, gospel blues starring Mavis Staples. Ry Cooder guests with his trademark slide guitar on the stellar "Ain't No Grave," in which Luther sings, "I would hope to be as brave as he was/ On judgment day/Ain't no grave can hold his body down...." Alvin Youngblood Hart — also a member of the South Memphis String Band — guests on harmonica and vocals on the strolling backporch blues of "Ol Cannonball." The clamoring "New Orleans Walkin' Dead" is a declamatory boasting stomp with Hart screaming on harmonica; it humorously celebrates zombie love. The set closes with the easy groove "Jellyrollin' All Over Heaven," a celebration of eternal life with Chew's bumping bassline countered by Cody's popping snare and Luther's dirty-assed slide guitar, before a solo Oldham piano coda takes them out. Keys to the Kingdom may have been recorded in response to death and birth but it is, more than anything else, a celebration of all that Jim Dickinson held dear in life and music, which are, after all, the same thing.


Formed: 1996 in Hernando, MS

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

Moving into much rootsier territory than their former punk band DDT, brothers Luther (guitar, mandolin, vocals) and Cody Dickinson (drums, sampling) formed the North Mississippi Allstars in 1996 with bassist Chris Chew. The sons of legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson were born in Fayette County, TN, and their family later moved to northern Mississippi, where the boys soaked up the country blues sound of the region from artists like Mississippi Fred McDowell and R.L. Burnside. That became the...
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Keys to the Kingdom, North Mississippi Allstars
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