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James Luther Dickinson - Dixie Fried

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Artist: James Luther Dickinson

Album: Dixie Fried

Label: Sepia Tone

Review date: Nov. 20, 2002

Pure Products of America Go Crazy

By the early 1970s, with the 60s a flaming wreck, Woodstock Nation had pretty much retreated to the idealized dream of an earlier, rural, communal America. Musical icons like the Band’s second album and the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo were signposts on a utopian journey into re-imagined roots Americana. It seems ironic that it might have been a mostly unknown producer and musician from Memphis who best gathered the deep strains of Southern music and produced a forgotten masterpiece that stared down and confronted the era’s Nixon White House dread and paranoia, while singing and celebrating a rich musical heritage.

James Luther Dickinson is a mysterious and enigmatic musical figure who, while remaining in relative obscurity, has managed to be part of a lot of essential creation, from Aretha Franklin sessions to Sleepy John Estes, to Ry Cooder, Alex Chilton and beyond. His legendary (and until now, long out of print) 1972 epic Dixie Fried might be among the most appropriately titled albums in rock history: it’s a sometimes scary, often emotional, and always funky amalgam of Memphis soul, country , blues and rock, poetry and personal catharsis.

There are boogie rave-ups here, like the over-the-top version of the Nightcat’s “Wine” that starts the record; all barrel-house piano, raw vocals, shredded-speaker guitars. But that cut is followed by a deeply soulful “The Strength of Love”, sung with conviction over fat, rich organ and celestial gospel choir.

Singer-songwriter Paul Siebel’s “Louise”, about the lonely death of an aging, loose-loving good-time woman, is best known through sad and touching versions by Bonnie Raitt and Leo Kottke. Dickinson plays the tale as a wild and drunken country anthem, driven by fiddle and pedal steel. Somehow his delivery, callous-sounding at first, turns the song into a celebration of a woman who lived life completely on her own terms; it’s as though Louise’s corpse, riding south on the mail train, is letting out a last “Fuck You” to the living left behind.

And the intensity goes up on the next track, a talking blues version of Dylan’s scathing anti-war, anti-jingoist “John Brown.” Over a funky Memphis groove that might have served as a template for Dylan’s later Muscle Shoals Jesus phase, Dickinson, intoning like some sort of Delta Jim Morrison, recites the almost unbearable story of a mother’s sick pride in her war-ruined son, while soprano sax and ghostly pedal steel keen out desolate obbligatos.

Much of the rest of the album focuses on channeling and re-tooling Memphis musical history: gospel, country blues, and Beale Street jazz march in the proud procession, as in the impassioned Book of Revelations sermon of “The Judgement", or the rolling, rollicking “Casey Jones” that takes out the album. Every track here is perfect in its own strange and evocative way.

There were only a few other albums in the 1970s roots movement that even attempted to go this deep – the Flying Burrito Brother’s Gilded Palace of Sin and Gene Clark’s forgotten No Other come to mind – but none of them were such true products of the real roots they purported to spring from.

Indeed, with a new Americana revival at hand, and the clouds of a possible Apocalypse on the horizon once again, James Luther Dickinson’s album seems both prescient and timeless. Maybe we’re ready for it this time.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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