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Luther Dickinson, lead singer and guitarist of the North Mississippi Allstars, has also released five solo albums and appeared on countless other recordings. Solstice is credited to him and Sisters of the Strawberry Moon, a collective of singers and musicians that includes Amy Helm, Amy LaVere, Shardé Thomas, the Como Mamas, and Birds of Chicago. A few guest musicians help out to create a beautiful album of American music that touches on many genres.
“Superlover” features Birds of Chicago, comprising singer Allison Russell and guitarist JT Nero, aka Jeremy Lindsay, who wrote the song. Russell’s beautiful, affecting voice carries hints of Southern soul and traditional country, and the backing vocals from Helm, LaVere, and Thomas are pure and deep. Nero’s acoustic guitar provides simple accompaniment as Dickinson adds fills on electric guitar. Lillie Mae Rische’s fiddle is sparkling and unaffected, a perfect complement to Russell’s voice.
Shardé Thomas wrote and sings lead on “Fly With Me,” to which Russell adds jaunty, spare banjo chords. Dickinson’s slide guitar gives the track a sweet, happy tone, and Thomas’s snare drum provides a loose rhythmic foundation, while her flute solo adds a giddy kick. Amy LaVere and Will Sexton harmonize on David Eagan’s “Hallelujah (I’m a Dreamer),” the other singers elegantly filling in other spots. Sexton’s swells on electric guitar give the song a haunting quality.
The musicianship on Solstice is of a high order, but no one shows off. “Like a Songbird That Has Fallen” has a Southern country-gospel strain that Amy Helm -- the daughter of the late Levon Helm, drummer for The Band -- apparently feels deeply. Helm accompanies her beautiful singing on mandolin, along with Lillie Mae Rische’s fiddle and Russell’s banjo.
Alvin Youngblood Hart’s funky blues guitar works with Dickinson’s rhythm guitar and Lindsay’s electric piano to give LaVere’s “We Made It” an authentic vibe of Southern soul. Rev. Charles Hodges’s Hammond B3 brings a churchy warmth to “Sing to Me” and “Til It’s Gone,” two songs with a strong gospel spirit. Throughout the album, Drew Lindsay’s keyboards add shading at just the right moments.
For “Hold to His Hand” and “Search Me,” the players sit out as the Como Mamas sing a cappella, underlining the large role gospel music plays in America’s music. In fact, all of the many styles represented on Solstice remind us how much of the country’s music is the result of the blending of cultures south of the Mason Dixon Line.
Dickinson’s guitar playing brings the right touch to each song, whatever the genre, and his generosity of spirit sets the mood for all of Solstice. “The whole idea of this album was to introduce a bunch of friends and get them to collaborate with each other,” he says. Indeed, Solstice has a communal feel -- the music flows gently, as if the musicians had gotten together in the living room after a good meal.
Dickinson, a son of producer and musician Jim Dickinson, recorded Solstice at his dad’s Zebra Ranch Studios, in Independence, Mississippi. Like the music, the sound is warm and organic; it’s also a bit compressed, though not so much that I found it distracting. The rich layering of the harmony vocals registered clearly, and the acoustic instruments sounded natural.
Solstice is a tribute to American music, and the cooperative, generous spirit audible throughout the album is soothing balm in difficult times.
. . . Joseph Taylor