Like Fathers, Like Sons
A Father’s Day tribute: The Dickinsons and Selvidges keep it all in the family.
Luther and Cody Dickinson
Justin Fox Burks
Memphis music has long been a family affair. Elvis Presley may have been the headliner of the city’s mid-century music explosion, but the cornerstones were, arguably, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and Beale Street/Stax stalwart Rufus Thomas — both patriarchs whose families impacted Memphis music beyond their own work.
The Phillips family has lived on, among other ways, via the noted work as a producer, engineer, and studio operator of Sam’s son, Knox, and via indie distributor Select-o-Hits, a now 50-year-old company founded by Sam’s brother, Tom, and still run by Tom’s children and grandchildren.
Two of Thomas’ children, singer Carla and keyboardist Marvell, were among the first wave of young Memphians who helped build Stax Records into a powerhouse label.
More recently, you can see this multigenerational pattern all over. The North Mississippi blues scene is dominated by descendants of late standard-bearers Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. James Alexander, bassist for Stax band the Bar-Kays, has enjoyed watching son Phalon (aka Jazze Pha) become a hit hip-hop producer. Memphis rap scene originator Al Kapone has been helping shape the prospective hip-hop career of his son, Young AJ, a father-son relationship around which filmmaker Craig Brewer built perhaps the best episode of his MTV series $5 Cover.
If modern Memphis music has a first family — what the Phillipses and Thomases were to an earlier generation — it’s probably been the Dickinsons.
Jim Dickinson, who died in 2009, was the underground godfather of modern Memphis music, helping sire a promising new generation of local musicians at his home studio (Lucero, Amy LaVere, Alvin Youngblood Hart) and, more crucially, in his family, with sons Luther and Cody, of the North Mississippi Allstars.
The elder Dickinson had produced several of the Allstars’ albums, but the liner notes to the band’s latest, the February 2011-released Keys to the Kingdom, say this: “Produced for Jim Dickinson.”
It was not only the brothers’ first album together since their father’s death, but their first since 2008’s Hernando — having spent the bulk of three years working on separate projects. But their father had told them before he passed that the brothers were at their best together. And though they’d already had plans to regroup for a new album, when the Dickinsons gathered — with longtime bassist Chris Chew — at the family’s Zebra Ranch Studio, the album they forged was a testament to their father’s life and spirit and a reckoning with his loss.
Self-produced by the band, with crucial help from longtime engineer Kevin Houston, it’s an album about mortality and loss but one whose tone is often swaggering and suffused with humor.
“That mirrors Dad’s whole example,” Luther said, talking before a showcase concert at Austin’s South by Southwest Music Festival this spring. “He was defiant and proud and brave. He always said production in absentia was the highest form of art. And we did it the way he’d want to do it.”
With the lone cover a one-chord hill-country blues take on Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again,” the arrangement suggested by the elder Dickinson during a hospital visit, the album is packed with original songs that take on death and deliverance directly, in a blues context. The Ry Cooder-featured “Ain’t No Grave” finds the band hoping “to be as brave as he was on that day,” while “New Orleans Walkin’ Dead” playfully literalizes resurrection. Keys to the Kingdom concludes with “Jellyrollin’ All Over Heaven,” where the band imagines their father, producer, and musical/spiritual guide on the other side, livening up the next world.
Recently, Cody has been following in the elder Dickinson’s path, spending more time as a producer, stepping in to take on pre-booked projects at Zebra Ranch to keep the studio — which Cody calls the family’s “fellowship hall” — running.
In Austin, Cody looked out a car window at the busy SXSW street scene and remembered coming to the festival as a teenager, with his father. “Yesterday I was sitting on the tour bus, working on demos, and had a realization,” he said. “Here I am, 15-plus years later, producing demos on the street at SXSW, where Dad used to bring us. I’m doing my work. I’ve found my career.”
“I think it was his master plan all along,” Luther said.
“But he didn’t push it on us. It’s on me if I [mess] this up or not,” Cody said.
Luther smiled. “And Lord knows we have. And he would tell us about it.”
In the immediate aftermath of the loss, Luther had convened old family friends and Dickinson collaborators for a recorded wake, which became the Grammy-nominated Onward & Upward.
“Dad didn’t want a [public] funeral, but he loved a recording session,” Luther says. “So we just took turns playing. Mom had to leave. It was too much. But it was also joyful. There was laughter. Like a jazz funeral.”
Among those who were part of the Onward & Upward session was another father-son musical pairing, Sid and Steve Selvidge.
Sid Selvidge, a folk singer with a strikingly pretty voice, had been a partner of the elder Dickinson (along with percussionist Jimmy Crosthwait and late guitarist Lee Baker) in the cult band Mud Boy & the Neutrons. His son, Steve, perhaps the leading Memphis guitarist of his generation, grew up around the Dickinson boys.
“Luther is six months older than me, so I just sort of joined the picture there,” Steve says. “Luther and Cody would come in from the country. We would sort of look at each other like, ‘Wow, you’re from the country’ and ‘You’re from the city.’”
Sid Selvidge was raised in Greenville, Mississippi, the son of a laundry business operator. (“Greenville Steam Laundry, Sid says. “I always thought that would be a nice band name.”)
“There was no encouragement,” Sid says of his family’s view of a musical career. “If you got to be musical in my family, it was said to be a fine avocation. They were very practical people. They didn’t like the music business.”
Like so many in his generation, Selvidge wanted to be Elvis, and played around Greenville in a rock-and-roll cover band (go-to song: Sonny Burgess’ “Red-Headed Woman”).
It was after moving to Memphis to attend Rhodes College (then Southwestern) that Selvidge began to turn toward folk music.
“They made me take my Danelectro guitar and put it in the student center so I wouldn’t play electric guitar in my dorm room and bother everybody,” Selvidge remembers. “That’s how I got into acoustic guitar.”
For a while, Selvidge pursued a career in academia, doing graduate work in anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis and returning to Rhodes as an instructor. But, eventually, Selvidge devoted himself full-time to music.
“I was a better musician than I was an anthropology teacher,” he says.
Over the years, Selvidge — known for his strong voice and versatile roots-oriented musicality — has released several solo albums, worked with Dickinson, Baker, and Crosthwait in Mudboy, and has settled in as the executive producer of the Memphis-produced, internationally syndicated radio program Beale Street Caravan.
With no regrets about choosing a life of music over a life of teaching, the elder Selvidge was more amenable when Steve — the youngest of five children — headed down a similar path.
“Steve was always the musician [among his siblings],” Sid says. “It was obvious. We neither encouraged nor discouraged it. In my time, everyone was hoping for the big pie in the sky to fall on you and, bingo, you’re rich and you don’t have any big problems anymore. After a while you say, ‘Oh, it’s a profession.’ Some of it’s good and some of it’s hard work, just like anything else. It has to be something you want to do. Watching Steve grow up, it seemed like all he ever wanted to do and it’s pretty much all he’s ever done.”
Where his dad is known primarily for his voice, the younger Selvidge has been known primarily as a guitar player — catching the bug early, with significant influence from his father’s late friend and bandmate Lee Baker, who died in 1996.
“When I knew [Lee] Baker was coming over to visit or hang out, I would just happen to be in my room, playing guitar. Hoping for a ‘Hey, you sounded good’ or whatever,” Steve says.
“It was a magnificent thing when Lee Baker would come over and sit his guitar case on the floor, a ’59 Les Paul,” Sid says. “It was like the Holy Grail to [Steve].”
While his father was primarily a folk singer, the younger Selvidge was weaned on metal, then hardcore (playing his first all-ages shows at the long-lost Memphis punk touchstone the Antenna Club), then classic rock.
“I let him turn it up,” Sid says. “I didn’t censor it. I just gritted my teeth.”
By the time Steve was a student at the University of Memphis, he was also playing in Big Ass Truck, which became one of the signature local bands of the ’90s, first filling Memphis clubs, then touring extensively.
“I’d go to class with my guitar with me, hand in an exam, and then hop in the [tour] van,” Steve says.
The conflict between school and music eventually came to a head when Steve wasn’t able to get a class he needed and hit the road instead. “I decided I’d try again next semester,” Steve says. “Well, next semester never really happened.”
“There was a conversation Steve and I had at that point,” Sid says. I told him, ‘I thought you promised me you were going to graduate.’ He said, ‘Nope, I promised you I was going to go there four years.’”
Since earning his reputation in Big Ass Truck, Steve has made his mark as a sideman (Ross Rice, Amy LaVere), session player, and lead guitarist for subsequent local bands (Bloodthirsty Lovers, Secret Service). Most recently, he’s joined up as a full-time member of the popular Brooklyn-based indie-rock band the Hold Steady. After touring with the band for the past couple of years, Steve will enter the studio this fall to contribute to his first Hold Steady album.
Where his boyhood compatriots the Dickinsons followed fairly closely in their father’s musical footprints, Steve Selvidge’s work has tended to be quite different.
“I’m not as demonstrative about it. But I did grow up with the same stuff and love playing it,” Steve says. “I would sing more. I just can’t write lyrics [very well]. The guitar is my trade. It’s my vocation. A lot of times, I’m making my living not as an artist, but as a craftsman. I’m a bricklayer in a way. Using the tool and the skill set that I have to get over. But when it comes down to it, the music that dad and Dickinson and Baker and Crosthwait made together, going back to Furry Lewis — that’s what touches me the most. Everything my dad and his friends did influences what I did and do. My path was just a little more circuitous. There’s a lot out there that I like to play and I’ve never been one to turn it down.”
“It’s very evident to me,” Sid says of hearing those influences in his son’s music. “But in the context of what he’s doing.”
“It’s not like there is vast amount of people who really know the ins and outs of Mud Boy,” Steve says, to which his father replies, with a laugh: “No kidding!”
Now, like Luther Dickinson a year earlier, Steve Selvidge has transitioned from son to father, welcoming his first child — a daughter — into the world last December. And he’s getting used to the juggling act his own father dealt with for years.
The elder Selvidge credits his wife — Steve’s mother — for making it work.
“It’s difficult to be a musician without somebody that is solid and secure and has a lot of self-confidence, that can let somebody go out on the road for a long period of time,” Sid says. “I realize that now. I was a lucky guy. A great wife, a great family, and I got to go out and play music. I just thought it was great fun. Which it was.”
Steve was fortunate to be off tour for his daughter’s birth and for most of her first few months. He’ll head back out with the Hold Steady later this summer, but for now he’s adjusting to a different kind of home life.
“The big difference for me is that I go to bed earlier and get up earlier,” Steve says. “Come 10:30, I’m done. Rock-and-roll, right?”