When producer/piano player Jim Dickinson reminisces about his storied career, the names and albums roll by in an unassuming and gentle Southern drawl, as casual as a waitress reciting breakfast specials. The tours and albums with Ry Cooder. Playing piano on Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind. Helping mastermind Big Star's landmark 3RD album. Recording in Muscle Shoals with the Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers) and Aretha Franklin (Spirit in the Dark). But ask Dickinson which recording he's been involved with that he's most proud of, and he can't help but laugh.
"I always tell people it was the Dick Nixons, the punk band from Donaldsonville, Louisiana," says Dickinson. "We made their record (Paint the White House Black) in three days, and there's something about doing it that fast that I like."
When it comes to his solo career, speed isn't one of Dickinson's defining traits. He recently released his superb sophomore CD, Free Beer Tomorrow (Artemis Records) -- an album that took 30 years to make. He recorded his 1972 debut album, Dixie Fried, for Atlantic Records, but that album is now a long out-of-print collector's item.
"That album was made by accident," remembers Dickinson. "I never wanted to be a frontman. I was just fulfilling a contract with Atlantic. I was in the Dixie Flyers, the house band for Atlantic, and when I quit the band, Atlantic turned my contract into an artist contract. Jerry Wexler joked that it's the only way I ever would have been signed to Atlantic. I cut it in '70, it was released in '72, and I didn't play any gigs for it, and barely read any reviews.
"I don't really get off on live music, anyway," he continues. "I feel the other musicians when I'm onstage, but I don't feel the audience. In the studio, I'm intensely aware of everything. There's something about the abstractness of it ... from the first time I stepped foot in a recording studio, I felt like I was at home."
Other musicians saw Dickinson's talent in the studio as well, and his list of friends and clients is incredibly diverse, encompassing the Replacements, G. Love & Special Sauce, Jason & the Scorchers, Mudhoney, T. Model Ford, the Texas Tornados, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Alvin "Youngblood" Hart, and New Orleans acts the Radiators, Dash Rip Rock and Royal Fingerbowl. But it was seeing his sons Cody and Luther -- co-leaders of the North Mississippi All-Stars -- blossom into formidable musicians that spurred Dickinson to record a new album of his own.
"I would never have done it without them," he says. "I didn't want to do it that much, but I wanted to pass some of it on to them. Some writer described it as a roots music education, but they're much better musicians now than I ever was. What they didn't know was the '70s recording techniques -- live tracking, and learning how to fix the parts, and learning what to leave out. I work with so many road bands who don't have a clue how to relate to the studio. People ask me, because I've done everything from reggae to rockabilly, what on those records is mine? It's the space between the notes. That's what you've got to create. It's natural to fill in the blanks in the studio, but you have to leave two-thirds out. All the bands I work with, I ask them, 'What do you want your record to be? And a lot of them say, 'I want it to be loud.' And I tell them that it's all gonna be zero on the meter when the session starts, and what you want is apparent volume, by surrounding it with silence."
The master heeds his own advice on Free Beer Tomorrow, which sounds like a well-lubricated musical travelogue stretching from Memphis to New Orleans. There's deftly placed mandolin fills, stellar horn charts, unexpected gospel backing vocals, and Dickinson's barrelhouse piano parts and backwoods-preacher holler of a voice coming together like some Mississippi-raised hybrid of Dr. John, Bobby Charles and Doc Pomus. He holds it all together with the common thread of 10 obscure songwriting gems, ranging from the ache of "It's Rainin'" (with a nod to Irma Thomas' definitive version), the acidic "Asshole," the humorous "Last Night I Gave Up Smoking," and the surreal "Ballad of Billy and Oscar."
Even with a new album finally under his belt, Dickinson hasn't changed his outlook on his own career much, meaning that his gig at Tipitina's this week (opening for the North Mississippi All-Stars) is a rare chance to see Dickinson perform live. "I'm not playing too many gigs, but I'll accept any excuse to come to New Orleans," he says. Guitarist Luther and drummer Cody will be in Dickinson's band, but it remains to be seen whether the elder Dickinson will return the favor and jam with his sons' band. "I played some gigs with them, but it got to where they were better without me," says Dickinson. "Plus, they play too damn long."
It took him 30 years, but legendary producer/sideman Jim Dickinson's new solo album, Free Beer Tomorrow, was worth the wait.