The Wandering gathers five traditionally-minded artists from Memphis and North Mississippi and features the string work of Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars, Black Crowes) and a quartet of distinctive female voices—Shannon McNally, Amy LaVere, Valerie June, and Sharde Thomas, erstwhile leader of the Rising Star Fife and Drum band.
The women are all accomplished musicians, and it was actually for this reason that Luther initially gathered them together.
“The idea for the band came together one day when I saw a picture of Valerie playing the banjo, which led me to think about Amy playing upright bass, which led me to think about Sharde playing drums and Shannon playing guitar,” says Luther. “So I called them up and arranged a session. We had no idea what to expect and I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it couldn't have been lovelier.”
The record was cut at the Dickinson family’s Zebra Ranch studio in Coldwater, Mississippi in just three days, and Luther recalls that the music fell readily into place.
“Everyone got along well and as soon as we started playing we all felt that it was special. Amy and Sharde have the coolest pocket together and Valerie's banjo parts are the magic ingredient. Shannon played rhythm guitar on everything, and I played guitars, mandolin and banjolin.
“I love having Sharde’s Mississippi cane fife paired with banjo, mandolin, and upright bass. It sonically represents the culture of the modern Southern folk experience.”
That experience is also represented in the group’s repertoire, which includes traditional standards and classic Americana from Southern-born artists including Robert Johnson, Kris Kristofferson, Little Willie John, Ray Charles, and Sid Selvidge.
Luther Dickinson is best known as the lead guitarist and vocalist of the North Mississippi Allstars (NMA), which he formed in 1996 together with his younger brother Cody. As the son of legendary producer, session pianist, and recording artist Jim Dickinson, Luther grew up listening to and playing a wide array of Southern music, something that’s reflected in the broad range of projects that he’s taken on.
In addition to his work with the NMA, Luther’s involvement with the unique music of the north Mississippi Hill Country includes producing two albums by Sharde’s grandfather, the late fife legend Otha Turner, and touring with R.L. Burnside. His recent projects include the South Memphis String Band, which also features Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart, and the Grammy-nominated album Onward and Upward, recorded just days after his father’s passing in 2009.
Shannon McNally was a member of “Sons of Mudboy” band that recorded Onward and Upward, and has been an integral part of the North Mississippi music scene since she relocated to Holly Springs in the wake of Katrina. A native of Long Island, Shannon moved to New Orleans not long after releasing her first album, Jukebox Sparrows, on Capitol Records in the early 2000s.
She’s since released multiple albums and has collaborated as a vocalist and songwriter with artists including Dr. John, Charlie Sexton, John Hiatt, Bobby Charles, Dave Alvin, and Son Volt. She worked with Jim Dickinson on her own material, appeared on his album Killers From Space, and recorded her album Windswept Moon at Zebra Ranch. Her most recent album is Western Ballad. Her husband, Wallace Lester, plays drums on three tracks here—Sentimental Blues, In the Pines, and Lovin’ Him was the Easiest Thing
A native of Louisiana, Amy LaVere began fronting an aggressive art-rock/experimental band at 14 in and around Detroit and in the mid-‘90s a move to Nashville inspired her to start playing traditional country and rockabilly slap-style upright bass. She moved to Memphis in 1999, and since 2005 has released three solo albums for Memphis’ Archer Records. Anchors and Anvils, her second album, was produced by Jim Dickinson, whom she credits as “the one who really got me to believe in my own voice.”
Amy’s music, albums, performances, and songwriting continue to reflect a broad musical sensibility. Her latest CD, Stranger Me, for instance, includes a cover of a Captain Beefheart song, offbeat instrumentation, and ethereal sounds. As an actress Amy has appeared in films including Black Snake Moan and Walk the Line, in which she played rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson, and, in between a full touring schedule for 2012, will film her second leading role this year in film maker Brian Pera's Only Child.
Sharde Thomas is the youngest member of the group here, but arguably the one most steeped in traditional music. Her grandfather, Otha Turner, was a legendary figure in north Mississippi’s unique African American fife and drum tradition, whose roots stretch back to before the blues. At Otha’s encouragement Sharde made her first public performance on the fife at age seven at the annual fife and drum picnic and goat roast he hosted in Gravel Springs.
Following her grandfather’s death in 2003 Sharde—then just 13—inherited the leadership of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. She’s taken the group as far as London and Notodden, Norway, and recently recorded her debut solo CD, What Do I Do?, which includes fife and drum music, blues, and contemporary R&B. On The Wandering Sharde plays the fife on two tracks and a drum kit on many others.
A native of Humboldt, Tennessee, located about ninety miles northeast of Memphis, Valerie June plays what she calls “organic moonshine roots music.” A self-taught performer, she began appearing at regional blues festivals in the mid-2000s, turning heads with her unique mix of country and blues, Medusan tangle of locks, and banjo. She gained broader attention in 2009 when she was featured on the Craig Brewer-directed MTV webisode series $5 Cover, a fictionalized take on the Memphis music scene that also included Amy LaVere.
Currently a resident of New York City, Valerie June has recorded with hip-hop artist John Forté and appeared at last year’s Bonnaroo festival together with Dr. John and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who is coproducing her next album. Her most recent CD is Valerie June & The Tennessee Express, produced by Ketch Secor of the Old Crow Medicine Show and featuring members of that band.
Sitting on Top of the World was first recorded in 1930 by the string band the Mississippi Sheiks, and was subsequently covered by artists including Bob Wills, Howlin’ Wolf, and Cream. It also became a staple of the distinctive north Mississippi fife and drum tradition, where it is often known as Station Blues.
Sharde usually performs this song over the insistent drive of her fife and drum band, but on this considerably more relaxed take she sticks to the fife and sings in a sweeter style, backed by Luther on mandolin and Amy on bass.
“It was very different but in a good way,” says Sharde. “I had to adapt to their beat ‘cause I'm used to playing behind the drums and not guitars. I caught on pretty quick, though, and I loved every minute of it.”
Hey Mr. Spaceman - written by Roger McGuinn; lead vocals by Amy, with harmonies from Shannon and Valerie June.
“One of the first songs I ever wrote was called Aliens, Choose Me,” recalls LaVere. “I think going to space would be the ultimate cure to my wanderlust and I've been dreaming about it forever. I first heard Jimbo Mathus and the Starlight Wranglers perform this tune. I thought, ‘Sheesh, that song says the same thing as my tune but a whole lot better!’
“I went home and learned the Byrds’ version the same night and added it to my live show on the off chance that an actual alien might see me perform. This is also why I brought it to the table for this band as well. I think if an alien hears these girls harmonize on this tune we'd all have a ticket on the spaceship.”
Lovin’ Him Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again) – written by Kris Kristofferson as “Lovin’ Her Was Easier…” ; Shannon on lead vocals
“We cut this song in the second round of recording,” says Shannon. “It's irresistibly sad and incredibly sexy. I've always loved Kris Kristofferson's version, but was inspired to sing it by Anita Carter's. Valerie's banjo part gives it the sweetest bit of unexpected motion and the melody basically sang itself.’
Sentimental Blues – written by William York, originally recorded by Ray Charles for Down Beat in 1949; Amy on lead vocals
“This has always been one of my favorite Ray Charles tunes,” says Amy. “I just by chance heard it on Pandora Radio for the first time in a long time a couple of days before going into the studio. I could just hear the backing vocals being reminiscent of some old ‘30s style of singing. Listening back to our recording makes me think of the animated film The Triplets of Belleville and makes me smile.”
Old Joe Clark – traditional; lead vocals by Valerie June
“I love traditional music, and this fabulous group seemed to be the best choice for this old tune,” says Valerie. “I fly by the seat of my pants in this band. Old Joe Clark is a familiar tune that I perform regularly at my shows, and I've always longed to hear it with accompaniment.”
Love, Life and Money –written by Julius Dixon and Henry Glover, originally recorded by Little Willie John for King Records in 1957; lead vocals by Shannon.
“We cut Love, Life and Money in the first round of recording,” says Shannon. “I called Mac Rebennack when I was trying to think of songs to bring into the studio and asked him, ‘What is the best song no one ever sings anymore?’ He called me back with this one, suggesting I listen to Little Willie John's version.”
Glory, Glory (Lay My Burden Down) – traditional; lead vocals by Sharde.
This spiritual is part of the standard repertoire of the north Mississippi hill country fife and drum tradition.
“Grandaddy would always close his shows and picnics with this song or Saints Go Marching In,” says Sharde. “When we play this we’re thanking people for coming out, and then we’ll march off and end the show.”
The Outlaw – written by Sid Selvidge, a musical compatriot of Jim Dickinson and fellow member of Mudboy and the Neutrons; lead vocals by Shannon.
“Sid Selvidge was the soundtrack to my Mississippi migration out of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” says Shannon. “He may have the sweetest voice ever, and if only I could yodel like the man himself… The story line of the song is of course locked in the perpetual heart of any gal who's ever fallen for, well, an outlaw.”
If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day – written by Robert Johnson; vocals by Valerie June
“Recording in Mississippi made me want to cover this Robert Johnson tune with the band,” says Valerie June. “It’s a tune I perform at my blues gigs, and I figured it would give a nice bottom to the traditional and folk-country tunes we captured.”
Blues Jumped the Rabbit – traditional; vocals by Amy.
The “blues jumped a rabbit” line is found in many blues songs, and was initially popularized by Blind Lemon Jefferson in his 1926 recording Rabbit Foot Blues. Jefferson’s song was included in the influential 1952 Folkways collection Anthology of American Folk Music, and subsequently became a standard on the folk music scene, recorded by artists including Judy Henske and Karen Dalton.
“I was going down the YouTube vortex, typing random words and watching music. I literally typed in “Rabbit Blues”—I have no idea why—and what came up was this hypnotizing video of a woman named Karen Dalton, whom I was unfamiliar with,” says Amy. “I watched it over and over and read and listened to everything I could find about her.
“I was still under her spell when we recorded the first day and wanted to share this tune with everyone if not even attempt to cover it. I hadn't tried to sing it even once before we recorded this version and it sounds kind of shaky and tentative but Luther was right in not letting me get any better at it, the unsettled feel of it very honestly catches the sentiment of this deep little song.
In the pines – traditional, lead vocals by Valerie
“At live shows, I'm sure we will explore all the great ways to drive this song through the pines and back a few times,” says Valerie. “Each person in the band has a different way of performing it. It's going to be a thrill to allow the melody to bounce around depending on who is the most connected with it at which show.”
“We cut this one in the second round of recording,” says Shannon. “There are so many great versions that no one version really drove the direction, though we mostly talked about the Carter sisters and Leadbelly’s versions. Valerie does the song in her set so she sang it and we just jumped in behind her.”
You Are My Sunshine – lead vocals and guitar by Valerie June; Luther on banjo
“Although ‘You Are My Sunshine’ is a sad and woeful song, it never fails me at a children's show,” says Valerie. “Every great record should have a song for kids!”