God Don't Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson is a new tribute album dedicated to the great blues and gospel guitarist and singer. It features Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, Tom Waits (on two songs), Sinead O’Connor, Lucinda Williams and others.
To get to the bottom of why an acoustic bluesman who died in 1945 inspires such loyalty and enthusiasm, we got in touch with guitarist Luther Dickinson, who contributed a song to the album.
Dickinson, who played with the Black Crowes from 2007 to 2011, leads the North Mississppi Allstars with his drummer brother Cody. He also recently released an excellent solo album, Blues & Ballads (A Folksinger's Songbook) Volumes I & II, which features stripped-down versions of some of his best-loved songs. Guests include Jason Isbell and Mavis Staples.
What makes Blind Willie Johnson stand out all these decades later?
Blind Willie was one of the first guitar heroes, one of the kings of the 78 [rpm record]. He spread the lyrics and melodies of gospel music and the slide guitar not only throughout his generation but to all the following generations. His repertoire contains so many standards of the American roots vernacular. These songs have been played by countless artists in all reaches of roots music.
What about as a guitarist?
His melodic slide style is unparalleled. He was a master at matching his voice's pitch and vibrato with his bottleneck. His rhythmic velocity is a force of nature as well.
Why is he so special that a wide range of artists jumped on honoring him?
The different styles of the interpretations on this album is a testament to Blind Willie's repertoire and artist vision. The melodies and lyrics hold up under any stylistic ornamentation. The songs are so strong that artists are at ease interpreting them.
Why did you choose the song “Bye and Bye I'm Going to See the King"?
Corey Harris turned me onto “Bye and Bye I'm Going to See the King.” I saw him play it at a soundcheck and fell in love with the song. The melody has a wonderful flavor with the dominant seven.
Give us the 411 on your new album, Blues and Ballads. What makes it different? How do you decide what will go on solo album vs. NMA versus anything else?
We have come to learn that NMA is best when we are playing either music inspired by hill country blues or our dad’s community's repertoire. That is our unique thing we love to do. Protect our community's repertoire while using it as foundations for interpretation and improvisation. Blues and Ballads was inspired by the concept of making a traditional song book of my favorite originals with humble folk style recordings of these songs befitting the spirit of the project. Making modern-day field recordings of honest interpretations of my originals.
You are so busy doing so many projects. Is that just the reality of being a musician in 2016? Does it keep you fresh?
Yes, musical variety does indeed keep me fresh and inspired. Part of being a musician is being a hustler, and my game is deep. Having multiple projects helps keep your work steady, planning way in advance. I also adore conceptualizing music, art and projects. The artistic process and conceptualizing new ideas is huge for me.
Alan Paul is the author of One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band.