James Luther Dickinson: Dixie Fried
Feb 15, 2003
DIXIE FRIED, James Luther Dickinson (Sepia Tone)
It is a few years now since I noticed that an unaccountable number of my favourite records had a peculiar detail in common: they all featured the contributions of a producer/session musician named James Luther Dickinson. His part was not always obvious, his role seldom a starring one, but inspecting the small print I would repeatedly find his name: as pianist on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses”, Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind and Aretha Franklin’s Spirit In the Dark; as producer of Big Star’s Third, the Replacements’ Pleased To Meet Me and Ry Cooder’s Into the Purple Valley. The artists were diverse, the albums ranging across genres and decades, yet they all shared some intangible magic. Was it Dickinson?
I did a little digging and uncovered more evidence of his subtle shamanism. In particular, I found a solo album he had released in 1972, Dixie Fried. As soon as I heard it I knew I had found the wellspring of that intangible quality I had perceived in those other discs.
Available again for the first time in 30 years, Dixie Fried sounds as tremendous as ever; a timeless testament to rock ‘n’ roll, its roots and branches. It’s funny, scary, dark, sad, joyous and mad. To hear it on CD after years of listening to a worn-out cassette dub is to revel in its heights and depths with fresh ears.
What I hear in Dixie Fried, above all else, is a sense of place. Dickinson hails from Memphis, Tennessee, and his music is marinated in the sounds of that city. This is where jug bands played for corn liquor on Beale Street in the 20s, where field-hands from the nearby delta traded their tools for electric guitars in the 40s and 50s, and where Elvis Presley first unleashed his fiery fusion of country, gospel and blues.
Dixie Fried is a scrambled history of the city in song. The title track comes from “Blue Suede Shoes”’ author Carl Perkins; a tale of drinking, carousing, violence and incarceration. Dickinson’s version is wild and giddy, sounding as if it was recorded at the party-come-riot depicted in the song’s lyric.
By contrast there’s “John Brown”, a little-known Dylan tune from his early protest period that may have been written about Vietnam. But Dickinson’s chilling delivery of the song’s narrative places it unmistakably in the south at the time of the American civil war.
It’s not the album’s only ode to death. There’s a version of “Louise”, the Paul Siebel coffeehouse staple, tossed off in the manner of Jerry Lee Lewis, all the more affecting for its refusal to give in to the song’s underlying sentimentality.
But there are celebrations of life here too, from the hysterically raucous opener of “Wine” to the closing “Casey Jones”, a song that harks back to the 19th century, for which Dickinson improvises a seemingly endless string of increasingly lewd verses. And there’s a song that may be even older, “Oh How She Dances”. Here Dickinson takes the role of a medicine show barker, enticing punters to “roll up, roll up to see the greatest conglomeration of curiosities ever gathered together under one canvas tent” while chickens squawk, tom-toms pound out a primitive pulse and someone plunks what sounds like a plank and a length of fencing wire. And this is years before Tom Waits ever saw a record contract, let alone concocted his sideshow fantasies.
For the three decades since Dixie Fried, Dickinson has been a shadowy figure, hovering in the background of iconic rock events. But coinciding with the reissue of Dixie Fried has been the release of a brand new Dickinson solo album with the typically wry title of Free Beer Tomorrow. And it is a logical sequel, streaming with southern squalour and carnivalesque colour. Not released locally, it can be obtained as an import. Though its chances of making Dickinson a household name are no better than Dixie Fried’s were back in 72, it is music for the ages and will sound just as heroic when it is rediscovered in another 30 years.