I f you asked Southern mystic Jim Dickinson why his sons Luther and Cody are compelled to play sloppy-assed juke-joint stomps, he'll likely present a convincing argument involving geographical elevation and prevailing winds.
While there's no discounting the environmental impact of growing up in the Mississippi hill country -- surrounded by the transfixing blues of neighbours like Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside and Othar Turner --there's still reason to believe that the sound of the Dickinson boys' North Mississippi Allstars combo was passed down genetically.
That's not to say the Allstars' debut disc Shake Hands With Shorty (Tone-Cool/True North) is anywhere near as whacked as their Dixie-fried dad's motorcycle-in-the-studio exploits as a mature solo artist.
However, the resemblance between the snarling take of Fred McDowell's Shake 'Em On Down the old man cut as the juvenile frontman of the Catmando Quartet back in the early 60s and the version his boys coincidently put down as the lead track of their new album is unmistakable.
Blues genes The lyrics have been altered, but the tone, texture and overall tenacity are virtually identical.
"Yeah," chuckles guitarist Luther Dickinson, for whom such oddities are commonplace, "it is kinda interesting that Dad did that song, too, isn't it? But our version was inspired by Fred McDowell's lyrics and the changes Furry Lewis added, along with a little bit of Muddy Waters' Mojo Workin' thrown in.
"In the hill country where we're from, everybody does the same songs and always did -- only the arrangements change and sometimes the lyrics, but not always. Mississippi Fred used to re-record the same song with completely different music. I love that."
These north Mississippi dudes are obviously fools for the blues and draw heavily on the entire Delta aesthetic in plowing out their greasy grind.
Still, they realize that a working knowledge of a 1-4-5 progression and a jug of corn liquor don't make them bluesmen -- even if their swing at hill country classics like Drop Down Mama is closer in spirit to the rootsy, raw sophistication laid down by Mississippi Fred than just about everything marketed as "the blues" today.
"We're a rock and roll band. Period. I don't consider myself any kind of bluesman, but we're definitely influenced by it. I can say that, like Othar Turner and R.L. Burnside, everything we do is a one-take deal.
"I remember my dad telling me that when he got the call to do Wild Horses with the Rolling Stones, he was getting pretty slick in the studio from working on Atlantic sessions for Jerry Wexler.
Stone crazy "Then the Stones came along and, what with Mick Jagger wandering around with a hand-held microphone and all the other craziness, they could barely keep it together. But the first time they made it through Wild Horses without stopping -- that was it. They didn't even try a second take."
Evidently, they've sold Jon Spencer on the one-take studio philosophy. The Blues Explosion main man has just finished recording with the Dickinson boys in Tate County, while the word of strange and wonderful goings-on at their converted barn known as Zebra Ranch Studio continues to spread.
Before the end of the month, they intend to complete the new juke-joint boogie side project of Widespread Panic keyboardist John "JoJo" Herman and a gospel album with John Medeski and sacred steel virtuoso Robert Randolph.
"Cody and me did some real rockin' shit with Spencer. We'd throw some ideas around, arrange 'em and record 'em real fast, like 30-some songs in two sessions.
"It's all about capturing the feeling of a bunch of guys in a room playing together. It won't work if you over-dub. You just gotta roll tape and get whatever comes down, 'cause what's played won't ever happen again."
NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS, and SHIKASTA, at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Monday (September 25). Free. 598-4753.