The Wandering (L-R) Luther Dickinson, Sharde Thomas, Amy LaVere, Shannon McNally, and Valerie June.
Memphis calls itself the “Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock-and-Roll,” but if modern Memphis music has a common identity, it might be how so many young local and regional musicians have managed to embrace the area’s roots-music heritage and reinvent it as something personal and modern — to look backward and forward at the same time.
And few recent Memphis music projects encapsulate this ideal as thoroughly as The Wandering, a folk/blues “supergroup” of sorts that brings together five under-40 musicians deeply steeped in the region’s musical history.
The band started with Luther Dickinson, singer and guitarist for blues-rock stalwarts the North Mississippi Allstars and son of the late, legendary producer Jim Dickinson.
Admiring a photograph of Memphis-bred, now Brooklyn-based folk artist Valerie June — at that point only an acquaintance — playing banjo, Dickinson began to think of other women in his acoustic/roots music orbit.
“I thought about Amy [LaVere] playing her bass, her upright. And that made me think about Sharde [Thomas] playing her drums. And then Shannon [McNally] was the logical guitar player/singer. The idea just kind of brewed,” Dickinson says. “I called them all up, and it kind of fell into place.”
Thomas, the youngest member of the band and still in college, is the granddaughter of late North Mississippi blues legend Otha Turner and the current leader of Turner’s Rising Star Fife & Drum Band. LaVere, a very popular singer-songwriter and bandleader on the Memphis scene, and the Oxford-based McNally had both worked with the elder Dickinson early in their careers. The pieces fit — not just musically and vocally, but conceptually as a roots-music girl group of sorts — perfectly.
Dickinson summoned them all — like the setup of a blockbuster superhero movie — to his family’s Zebra Ranch Studio with the only instruction to bring along a couple of traditional songs or covers they’d be interested in playing.
“I told everybody, just bring three or four traditionals. That’s the perfect common denominator,” Dickinson says. “Dad used to say that was the best way to make a record: Get a bunch of people in the studio who don’t know each other.”
Almost instantly, they had a band. Three days later, they had the terrific, warm, loose-limbed album, Go On Now, You Can’t Stay Here, recorded with the palpable intimacy and casual swagger that the late Dickinson had made a Zebra Ranch staple.
“We just went in and let the tape roll,” June says of the Wandering sessions. “I like the way they work at the Zebra Ranch. You look back, but you don’t look back too long.”
The eclectic material — all covers, ranging from ‘60s/’70s folk-rock and singer-songwriter country to ancient country-blues traditionals — features each of the four women on lead vocals at least a couple of times and excels when the interaction is most tangible.
The album opens with the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” a longtime regional blues staple. Thomas gives a charismatically indolent lead vocal after launching the song with interplay between her fife and Dickinson’s mandolin. LaVere, McNally, and June share vocals on the Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman,” with LaVere’s bass and palpably compassionate line readings (“I hope they get home all right”) standing out. McNally gender-flips Kris Kristofferson’s “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again),” playing off June’s banjo counterpoint. June wails her way through the Robert Johnson classic “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” with Thomas and LaVere making the song motorvate in a way that’s rare.
The eclectic material — all covers, ranging from ’60s/’70s folk-rock and singer-songwriter country to ancient country-blues traditionals — features each of the four women on lead vocals at least a couple of times and excels when the interaction is most tangible.
“The way Amy and Sharde groove is just unreal,” Dickinson says, remembering the sessions. “Sharde’s such a cool, understated drummer, and Amy is so heavy on that upright. And Valerie’s banjo parts are like the secret weapon. They play really quiet and let Valerie have the space to pop through,” Dickinson says. “And then they started singing together, and it sounded so beautiful. It just made me so happy. I hadn’t even planned on playing on the record [Dickinson plays mainly mandolin and guitar], but it was so much fun I couldn’t resist.
“That’s terrible as a producer to put yourself in the band,” he says with a laugh.
Go On Now, You Can’t Stay Here was released May 8th just ahead of a debut tour that included a first-ever Memphis show at a packed Levitt Shell on May 19th.
With Dickinson on the road with the Allstars and Thomas finishing up her college semester on the eve of the tour, June, LaVere, and McNally went through what June called a “48-hour crash course” to learn some of each other’s songs so The Wandering could turn its 38-minute album into a 90-minute live show.
With the brief tour over and everyone back to pursuing their individual careers, is this terrific album the end of The Wandering’s story? Dickinson hopes not.
“I think it really has potential,” Dickinson says. “I hope that band has wings. I hope they stay together even if I’m not involved. Anybody can fill my spot.”