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Blues Bash Music Review: North Mississippi Allstars’ “51 Phantom”

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Much like jazz, most young people get introduced to the blues from artists who mix it with a more mainstream type of music, which usually means rock. Twenty years ago, Stevie Ray Vaughan's music was the gateway to the straight blues, while the young Jonny Lang led the way there near the turn of the millennium. Today's blues heroes to the Gen-X and Gen-Y crowd like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the Black Keys appeal to those groups by filtering the blues through the sound of alternative or indie rock.

Last week's OTM was a hybrid of rock and Chicago electric blues by a guy who's been doing it for a long time. This week, we shine the spotlight on a song that combines alt-rock with northern Mississippi blues by a relatively new outfit of young players with some fresh ideas. The North Mississippi Allstars is a Memphis-area trio comprised of guitarist/singer Luther Dickinson, drummer/pianist/singer Cody Dickinson, and bassist Chris Chew. (Note: they've since grown to a quartet with the addition of Duwayne Burnside.)
The Dickinson brothers were already veterans of the Memphis music scene by the time they became adults, since their father Jim Dickinson was one of the more highly respected producers in town. As kids, they soaked in sessions involving bands like the Replacements, Mojo Nixon, and The Spin Doctors. Meanwhile, their upbringing in the hills of northern Mississippi exposed them to the music of legends from that region: Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough, and R.L. Burnside, with their modal, often narcotic style of blues. By the time they added Chew to form the Allstars, following a foray into punk, the ingredients were all there for their unique blend of music both old and new.

The boys debuted with an album full of northern Mississippi blues covers for 2000's Shake Hands With Shorty. The next year, they followed up with a set of originals that showed the strong influence of the covers on the previous album called 51 Phantom.

The record leads off with the song of the same name and it's a straight ahead power rocker of a track. There's not a whole lot of nuance to talk about in this song; a three minute, two chord verse with a two chord bridge, and no solos. It's not a song you ponder whether you like or not, and if you do, you'll like it loud.

What is significant is that there are signposts of classic electric blues cropping up throughout the song. About bootlegging moonshine from Memphis to New Orleans on a legendary U.S. highway (Bob Dylan wrote about this same road on his debut album), the pile driving amped up guitar of Luther throws off strong echoes of Elmore James when he cops James' signature slide riff on the second chord. His sneering vocals end some lines with a Howlin' Wolf blues yodel. Meanwhile, Cody and Chew keep the backbeat going like a train.

To say this is indicative of the NMA's style is not really even close; there are so many more wrinkles they bring to the table elsewhere in their body of work. But for this song, at least, they testify to the simple beauty of the blues of their homeland, even as they are rocking hard doing so. It's like a drug; a gateway drug to the blues.

Listen: North Mississippi Allstars "51 Phantom"

"One Track Mind" is a weekly drool over a single song selected on a whim and a short thesis on why you should be drooling over it, too. Downloads are low quality rips available for only about a week.

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About Pico

  • Thanks for the review of the North Mississippi Allstars! Good to hear the song clip, too. Great band – would love to see them play live at some point.

  • Comments like that make it all worthwhile; thanks, Jenny!


  • Congrats! This article has been forwarded to the Advance.net websites.

  • Thanks Connie! Makes me wanna let out a Howlin’ Wolf blue yodel…

    ahh-woooooooo! :&)


  • ahh-woooooooo!

    That yodel is classic. I am laughing just thinking about it. Classic.

  • You’re welcome, Pico! Thank you for being such a enthusiastic participant in our focus on the Blues this month!