two songs and a photograph

jimbo mathus, alvin youngblood hart and luther dickinson of the south memphis string band. photo by bob bayne.

jimbo mathus, alvin youngblood hart and luther dickinson of the south memphis string band. photo by bob bayne.

By Luther Dickinson’s estimation, the only promotion backing up the South Memphis String Band when its first hit the road was a myspace page containing two songs and a black-and-white snapshot.

But then again, given that Dickinson and fellow string pickers Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jimbo Mathus rank among the most revered blues and roots music stylists of their generation, making a bigger fuss seemed almost self-defeating.

“Two songs and a photograph, man,” Dickinson said with a laugh. “We built a whole tour around that. And during that tour, we made a record – an honest, under-produced record – the kind I really like. I can’t listen to modernized records, man. I’m just old fashioned to a fault.”

Being old fashioned drives the South Memphis String Band throughout its fine new Home Sweet Home album. The record is a mix of blues, swing, ancient country and roots jamboree music with songs by Blind Willie Johnson, A.P. Carter, the Mississippi Sheiks and even an original by Mathus (Worry ‘bout Your Own Backyard) that effortlessly meshes with the traditionally based covers. The resulting music is served up on mandolin, acoustic guitar and banjo, much in the same manner that jubilant string sounds were created by Memphis acts like Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers in the ‘20s and ‘30s.

All of which might seem like a departure for the trio members if you were only familiar with the surface successes of their respective careers. Dickinson, for example, is one third of the mighty Southern jam troupe known as the North Mississippi All-Stars. Mathus remains a charter member of the multi-stylistic Squirrel Nut Zippers but has also overseen numerous blues directed solo projects. Hart is largely recognized as one of the most versed and original bluesmen to emerge in recent decades.

But with the South Memphis String Band, the music sounds both ancient and fresh. It’s a throwback to jug bands, string bands and swing bands of the past. That sense of acoustic timelessness is what makes the band sound so vital

“That timelessness kind of perpetuates a tradition,” Dickinson said. “From Jimmie Rodgers to Mississippi John Hurt to Robert Johnson to the early Bob Dylan stuff, the acoustic format is truly my favorite art form.

“For me, it’s a huge release to finally have a true acoustic outlet like this. So when we started, I was just pulling out some of my favorite old songs. Everybody was. The funny thing was, though, we never rehearsed. We just got in a van and drove to Texas. And in the van we kind of put together the rough outline for the first era of our repertoire.”

The origins of the South Memphis String Band extend back to January 2008 when the trio, along with blues great Charlie Musselwhite and Dickinson’s father (the late Memphis pianist, producer and all around musical stylist Jim Dickinson) and brother (fellow North Mississippi All Star Cody Dickinson) gathered for a self-described “hardcore blues” recording under the group name of the New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers.

That recording is due out later this year or in early 2011. But during the sessions, Luther Dickinson, Mathus and Hart began jamming on acoustic roots tunes that inhabited a somewhat neglected corner of Memphis musical tradition.

“We were doing the Freedom Rockers record and having a blast,” Dickinson said. “During that time, Alvin, Jimbo and I would also play some jug band music. Those acoustic sessions became the South Memphis String Band. We were all good friends that had played together in different configurations, but never as one, singular band. Once we strapped on the guitars, we discovered some really cool chemistry.”

Perhaps the defining words on the South Memphis String Band and Home Sweet Home go to Jim Dickinson, who died in August 2009. The liner notes he penned for an album he didn’t live to see released possess an attitude as resolute and devout as the trio’s music.

“If you don’t dig this,” the elder Dickinson writes, “there is something seriously wrong with you.”

“My father was and is a master of manipulating time and space,” son Luther said. “He is still with us in many ways. Through it all, he always finds a way to help us.”

South Memphis String Band performs with the Quebe Sisters Band at 7 p.m. Monday at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main, for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Tickets are $10. Call (859) 252-8888.

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