Deep in the forests of northern Mississippi you can find the blues hiding in the clearings, down in the hollers or camped out around the bonfire.
It isn’t bayou music, with its humid, swampy guitars and growled lyrics sung by fan boat captains. It also isn’t the Delta blues, with its heavy, introspective lyricism and slide guitar imbued with Gulf sunsets glinting off cotton fields.
What you’ll find there, among the verdant forests and rolling vistas, is the hill country blues, a variant that doesn’t encompass protest songs or the sin, salvation and sadness of the Delta.
“Hill country music is more party music,” Luther Dickinson said. “We might sing some freedom rock every once in a while, but we won’t be promoting hard times.”
Dickinson is one of the founders of the North Mississippi Allstars, perhaps the most famous hill country band to have made it out of the region. The group, which he founded in 1996 with his brother, Cody, is kicking off the JacksonHoleLive series Sunday at the Snow King Ballpark, with the Athens, Georgia, band Futurebirds opening.
In keeping with custom, the opening show of the series coincides with the Teton Raptor Center’s RaptorFest and the 14th annual Crawfish Boil. From 3 to 6:00 p.m. Sunday the Raptor Center will have a few birds out for kids and families (or interested adults without children) to watch and learn from, as well as avian-inspired games and a Father’s Day card-making station (for those who weren’t on top of things).
Crustaceans start going into boiling water at 5 p.m., serving up a meal that marks a de facto beginning of summer: A cookout that couples the lengthening days with seafood dunked in butter. Two thousand pounds of crawfish are being imported from New Orleans to feed hundreds of hungry concertgoers.
“It’s probably going to be our biggest event of the summer,” JacksonHoleLive co-founder Shannon McCormick said.
For the concert series kickoff, the music is likely the main attraction for many, especially because of the low ticket price of $5 for adults (if you’re under 17, it’s free). Though both bands are from the South, Futurebirds plays twangy indie-rock that shows their Athens roots. Hints of guitar riffs ala the Shins peek through their songs, and one would be hard pressed to recognize them as innately Southern.
The North Mississippi Allstars, on the other hand, bring music steeped in the region’s traditions. The Dickinson brothers come from a musical lineage. Their father, Jim, played behind acts like Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones (on “Wild Horses,” of all songs) and started his own well-known studio, Zebra Ranch.
They also came up under R.L. Burnside, one of the two bluesmen, along with Junior Kimbrough, who made the hill country sound famous on recordings for Fat Possum Records. Burnside was the Dickinson brothers’ mentor, even playing his last performance as part of their 2004 Bonnaroo set that became the live album “Hill Country Revue.”
The brothers have taken Burnside’s influence and ran with it, finding a groove two decades in by sticking to their roots, even as they pursue side projects that allow them to be more experimental.
The North Mississippi Allstars is “our home base,” Luther Dickinson said. “We might swing out into different orbits, but when we come back it’s like riding a bicycle.
“You’ve done the experimental tendencies, and you get them out of your system. The main output is NMA; that remains pure.”
After their decades of climbing the musical ladder, the Allstars have hit a point at which they can be sure of themselves onstage or in the studio.
“We’ve aged, and we can sit back and relax,” Dickinson said.
That doesn’t mean they take their role as chief groove makers lightly, but it gives them the chance to write songs on their own terms. They can improvise during a show, and, when a new riff plants a kernel of something, they take that into the studio.
On their 2017 album, “Prayer for Peace,” they employed their connections to record tracks on the road, stopping in at studios from Brooklyn to Mississippi to record a couple of songs at a time. Rather than the stressful, deadline-driven method of sitting down to record an album over a one- or two-week period, the Allstars were able to harness creative energy as it came.
“The best most organic way to write is onstage, then you play it in the studio and edit it down,” Dickinson said. “It’s a fun process.”
The Allstars have been around long enough to reach parenthood and star status, a level that every aspiring musician hopes for, and with that age comes a new outlook that fits perfectly with JacksonHoleLive.
“My favorite audience is a young mom with kids on her hips and grandparents sitting next to her on a lawn chair.” ￼