Presented as part of American Byways.
In the tightknit musical community of Austin, Texas, it’s tough to get away with posturing. You either bring it, or you don’t.
If you do, word gets around. And one day, you find yourself performing a duet with Bonnie Raitt, or standing onstage with the Allman Brothers at New York’s Beacon Theater and trading verses with Susan Tedeschi. You might even wind up getting nominated for a Best Blues Album Grammy—three times in a row. And those nominations would be in addition to your seven Blues Music Awards, three Austin Music Awards, the Grand Prix du Disque award from the Académie Charles-Cros in France, a Living Blues Critics’ Award for Female Blues Artist of the Year, and being named a 2018 United States Artists Fellow.
There’s only one Austinite with that resume: Ruthie Foster.
The small rural town of Gause, Texas, had no chance of keeping the vocal powerhouse known as Ruthie Foster to itself. The worship services at her community church, and influences like Mavis Staples and Aretha Franklin created the foundation of her vocal capabilities, which developed into her own sound that is unable to be contained within a single genre. That uniqueness echoes a common theme in Foster’s life and career: marching to the beat of her own drum.
Joining the Navy was one way for Foster to stake out her own path. It was during her time singing for the Navy band Pride that her love for performing became apparent. After leaving the service, she signed a development deal with Atlantic Records and moved to New York City to pursue a career as a professional musician.
A deal with a major label would seem to be a dream come true for a budding artist, but the label favored Foster as a pop star. In another bold move, she walked away from the deal and returned to her roots, moving back to the Lone Star State. It was there that she solidified her place as an up-and-coming singer-songwriter and began a musical partnership with Blue Corn Music.
Now comes Foster’s latest, Joy Comes Back. When she recorded this album, Foster wasn’t merely singing about love and loss, she was splitting a household and custody of her five-year-old daughter. Music was her therapy.
The comfort she felt within the studio gave her the strength to pour the heartache of her family’s fracture and the cautious hope of a new love into 10 incredible tracks, nine of which are by a diverse array of writers who range from Mississippi John Hurt and Grace Pettis (daughter of renowned folk singer Pierce Pettis), to Chris Stapleton and Black Sabbath. Every note on Joy Comes Back confirms this truth: It’s Ruthie’s time.
Founded in 1996 by brothers Luther (guitar and vocals) and Cody Dickinson (drums, piano, synth bass, programming, and vocals), the now venerable North Mississippi Allstars is entering its third decade with perhaps the most vital album of its career, Prayer for Peace. Recorded in studios across America during the band’s 2016 tour, Prayer for Peace sees the Dickinsons weaving their bred-to-the-bone musical sensibility with unstoppable energy, rhythmic reinvention, and a potent message of positivity, family, and hope. As ever, songs like R. L. Burnside’s “Long Haired Doney” and the impassioned title track pay homage to the country blues legacy, while simultaneously pushing it into contemporary relevance with fatback funk, electronic innovation, slippery soul, and pure unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll.
Prayer for Peace continues the burst of inspiration begun with 2013’s earth-shaking World Boogie Is Coming. That album, the band’s seventh studio recording, proved the planetary sensation its title promised, with The Guardian simply declaring it the North Mississippi Allstars’ “best yet.”
Though they had been making music together all their lives, World Boogie Is Coming saw the Dickinsons advance as a true artistic partnership, striking a wholly democratic balance between Luther’s raw, organic aesthetic, and Cody’s passion for electronics and programming. The album was followed by a remarkable run of extracurricular efforts, including solo projects, collaborations, soundtrack contributions, and documentary film production.
A notoriously hard touring band from the start, North Mississippi Allstars had long considered ways to maximize its time on the road by recording as much as possible while traveling America and beyond. When time came to follow up World Boogie Is Coming, the Dickinsons decided to make the idea a reality.
The Allstars spent much of 2016 lighting up studios in St. Louis, Kansas City, New Orleans, Brooklyn, Austin, and of course, the brothers’ legendary father Jim Dickinson’s Zebra Ranch in the Allstars’ own Hernando, Mississippi. As ever, Prayer for Peace sees the Allstars putting its indelible stamp on classic blues numbers and folk traditionals.
True as always to the blues tradition, North Mississippi Allstars use the basic structures taught to them as the starting point for improvisation and contemporary interpretation—an approach that inextricably links them to a long line of American visionary artists like the Grateful Dead. Prayer for Peace includes a trio of traditional songs long associated with the Dead, including “Stealin,” “Bid You Goodnight,” and “Deep Ellum.”
Where Prayer for Peace truly builds upon the repertoire is with a number of Luther-penned originals. The title track is among North Mississippi Allstars’ most immediate new songs—a beat-crazy appeal for unity that like the band itself, stands as a righteous celebration of multiculturalism, inclusion, and compassion. Topical though it may be, both Dickinsons assert the album’s goal transcends simple politics.
That seemingly modest but oh-so-necessary objective will keep the Dickinsons on the road they love for the foreseeable future, ideally recording another LP while continuing to shake audiences young and old with genuine, unadulterated blues power. Prayer for Peace affirms North Mississippi Allstars’ own unique place in the American musical tradition as master curators, expert revivalists, and forward-thinking pioneers. Long may they run.
Rosanne Cash is one of the country’s preeminent singer-songwriters, earning four Grammy Awards and 11 nominations, as well as 21 top-40 hits and 11 number-one singles. Her latest release, The River & the Thread—a collaboration with husband, co-writer, producer, and arranger John Leventhal—received three Grammy Awards in 2015. That same year, she was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Cash is also an author of four books, including her memoir Composed—a New York Times bestseller—and many essays that have appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Oxford American, The Nation, and more. She was awarded the SAG/AFTRA Lifetime Achievement Award for Sound Recordings in 2012 and received the 2014 Smithsonian Ingenuity Award in the Performing Arts.
Cash currently serves as a creative partner in programming with Carnegie Hall and as artist-in-residence with SFJAZZ. She and John Leventhal are currently writing the music and lyrics for a musical. She also plans on releasing an album of new material in 2018.