Memphis music guru Jim Dickinson described his last album, 2002’s Free Beer Tomorrow (Artemis), as “the sound of a drunken circus band marching down the street.” On his latest, Jungle Jim & the Voodoo Tiger (Memphis International), it seems as if that band had stumbled back into a bar and filled the jukebox with quarters.
STUDIO STAR: “I don’t relate to live audiences,” says Dickinson, who’s helmed recordings by everyone from Screaming Jay Hawkins to the Replacements.
The disc is a collection of earthy covers, and Dickinson sings them in a voice that shows more than a passing familiarity with beer and smokes of one kind or another. The tunes carom among rock, blues, soul, and country — pretty much like the music of the city on the bluffs of the Mississippi that he’s been associated with for most of his career. And besides his own keyboards and crooning, he’s got a few ringers: his sons Luther and Cody, of the North Mississippi All Stars, on guitar and drums, and guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart, for whom he produced the Grammy-nominated Down in the Alley (Memphis International).
Given that this is only Dickinson’s third solo album in 35 years, why all cover tunes? “I’ve been writing songs all along,” he explains, “but the truth is, they’re not as good as these. All of these songs have been stuck in my brain for years, with the exception of ‘Red Neck, Blue Collar,’ which sprang to mind immediately when David Less, who is one of the guys who runs the record label, suggested I record a protest song.” The Bob Frank number — an ode to regular hard-working folks — kicks off the disc with a gritty rumble. As things progress, Dickinson hits the country classic “Truck Drivin’ Man,” salutes primal Arkansas rocker Ronnie Hawkins with “Rooster Blues,” lays down the greasy patent-medicine ode “Hadicol Boogie,” and delivers an especially nasty, hip-grinding version of the dirty Southern soul ditty “Love Bone” where fellow North Mississippi roots musicians Kenny Brown and Jimbo Mathus get name-checked. For contrast, the set ends with Dickinson’s spare but beautiful arrangement of Luis Bonfa’s “Samba de Orfeu” from Marcel Camus’s 1959 film Orfeu negro|Black Orpheus.
Free Beer Tomorrow is credited to “James Luther Dickinson,” the name the 64-year-old backwoods mystic of the keyboards and production records his own work under. And don’t expect him to tour. “I am a recording artist. I don’t relate to live audiences.”
But he’s not a cold man. The same generous spirit and raconteur’s soul that he shows in conversation bubbles throughout Jungle Jim & the Voodoo Tiger. And a résumé that includes keyboard session work with Aretha Franklin, Brook Benton, Hank Ballard, James Carr, Alex Chilton & Big Star, Petula Clark, Albert Collins, Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan, the Flaming Groovies, Giant Sand, Arlo Guthrie, Bettye Lavette, Los Lobos, Lulu, the Meat Puppets, Billy Lee Riley, and the Replacements is proof that he can get along with anybody. Although he’s toured and recorded across the world during his 40-something-year career, and spent years living in LA to be in the heart of the business, his work has always had the direct emotional appeal of the best Memphis blues, soul, and gospel. And like Al Green, Rufus Thomas, Elvis, and Sam Phillips, he’s one of the larger-than-life characters who keep the city — and especially its music scene — interesting.