For legendary producer and performer Jim Dickinson, making music is a family affair.
It took Jim Dickinson three-and-a-half years to record his last solo album, 2002's Free Beer Tomorrow. By contrast, Dickinson took a mere 10 days to cut his new Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger, which was released in late May.
For a producer who claims to prize spontaneity and is interested in capturing "the moment of creation," 10 days sounds more like it, and truth is in the listening. If Dickinson now thinks Free Beer Tomorrow sounds too worried over, the raggedy, welcoming groove of Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger sounds anything but.
Rather, the album sounds like an accidental manifesto about what "country" music might mean, with honky-tonk and jug bands and juke joint blues melding into folk-rock and Southern soul and rockabilly boogie. That all these genres sound of a piece on Jungle Jim is a tribute to the formal audacity of its primary creator, but also to the utter ease of the band he's assembled, with North Mississippi Allstar sons Luther and Cody Dickinson and their longtime friend, bassist Paul Taylor, forming the center around which Dickinson and co-producer/label owner David Less (of the local Memphis International Records) deploy a tight cadre of Memphis singers and players.
"I get grief for using the same people all the time," says Dickinson, who used many of the same players on Free Beer Tomorrow as well as recent production work for John Hiatt and Shannon McNally. "But there's a big difference between a band and a rhythm section and my kids can be a rhythm section. Besides, [violinist] Tommy Burroughs and [saxophonist] Jim Spake are my two favorite soloists. What, I'm not supposed to use them?"
The easy rapport Dickinson's studio band (the album was recorded at Zebra Ranch, Dickinson's home studio in Independence, Mississippi) has with him and each other is reminiscent of Willie Nelson's "family band," the group of relatives and lifelong friends the country icon travels and records with, and it's a comparison that Dickinson embraces.
"That's right," Dickinson says. "In a family, there's going to be an ambiance. Basically I spent my career recording music I've never heard with people I've never met. And I wanted to do the antithesis of that."
"In a family, there's going to be an ambiance. Basically I spent my career recording music I've never heard with people I've never met. And I wanted to do the antithesis of that."
An all-cover record, Jungle Jim is also a fascinating selection of songs, with genre classics ("Truck Drivin' Man," "Rooster Blues") paired with recent songs from obscure songwriters.
"It started out to be all chestnuts," Dickinson says. "The first thing I recorded was 'Truck Drivin' Man.' We were doing it real fast. And I was thinking of it as a songbook album. But Less had been asking all his artists to do protest songs, so I cut 'Red Neck, Blue Collar.'"
A recently written song from San Francisco-based, Memphis-connected songwriter Bob Frank, a longtime Dickinson friend, "Red Neck, Blue Collar" is a growling class-conscious anthem that opens Jungle Jim with a burst of energy and attitude.
Recording the song inspired Dickinson to incorporate more newer songs into his "chestnut" album, including songs he'd thought about including on Free Beer Tomorrow. But there is one thing that connects all titles in this genre-hopping mix of old and new. "The songs all have a personal hook for me," Dickinson says.
That personal hook makes a seemingly incongruous finale, the instrumental "Samba de Orfeo," make perfect sense. "I taught my boys that song, and Paul Taylor as well," Dickinson says of the song, from the 1959 Marcel Camus film Black Orpheus. "We used to play it on stage all the time."
Midway through, Dickinson exclaims, "Play it, Luther!" in an entirely unintentional evocation of the moment in Sam & Dave's "Soul Man" when one of the singers yells out to Stax guitarist Steve Cropper, "Play it, Steve!" And then Luther Dickinson launches into a lovely, delicate solo quite different from the blues and rock he's known for. ("He's studied a lot of Joseph Spence and South American music," daddy Dickinson says.) Musically, it has no connection to the mix of American(a) genres celebrated previously on the record. But emotionally, it fits perfectly on a record that's primarily about warmth and familiarity. About those moments of creation.