Jim Dickinson – whose 1972 record Dixie Fried is about to be rereleased – grew up in Tennessee but I met him, fifteen years ago, in North Mississippi, in the double-wide trailer he lived in at his Zebra Ranchrecording studio. He’d played with just about everyone by then: Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones (that’s Jim next to Keith Richards), Aretha Franklin. ‘Cadillac Man’, a song he’d sung with the Jesters in 1966, is the last great Sun Records single that I know of. So I don’t think Jim needed to live in a trailer. But he liked to – in part, I suspect, because he liked to say that he did.
There were Lucha Libre wrestling masks up on his walls. An old piano decomposing in his yard had been the house piano at Stax Records during the studio’s heyday. Jim was big into entropy: he said he liked to ‘watch shit rot’. He’d talk about it at length over barbecue, which he loved, and jazz cigarettes, which he also loved. Of all the natural storytellers I’ve met, Jim was the most natural.
He was born in Arkansas in 1941, but spent a few formative years in Chicago before moving back down to Memphis (‘a city where the pimps dress like businessmen’, he’d say, ‘and the businessmen dress like pimps’). He listened to black musicians on Beale Street, and played in integrated bands at a time when playing in integrated bands wasn’t encouraged. Back then, Jim told me, a white man could sit in the back of a car with a black man driving, or a black man could sit in the back while a white man drove (as far as the authorities were concerned, he looked like a field hand, say, being driven to work). But what you could not have was a white man and a black man sitting in a car side by side. Once, driving back from a show in West Memphis, Jim was pulled over. The cop looked through the window, assessed the situation, and said: ‘Well, if you want to live with them, you can just go on and live with them then.’
Jim, for me, was the embodiment of Memphis music, which is still very much alive, if you care to go looking for it. (On Sunday mornings, Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle church, just down the road from Graceland, is a good place to start.) Every few years, I’d show up at the Zebra Ranch with barbecue and a head full of questions. Why did rock and roll happen in the 1950s, and not thirty years earlier, given that white musicians like Dock Boggs, Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter Family had all been playing with, and learning from, black musicians in the 1920s? Jim thought about that for a moment, then said ‘Korea’ – the integration of the armed forces had been a big deal – and also comic books, which had taught American children to spend their money more freely.
I once asked Jim to take me through Big Star’s 3rd/Sister Lovers, an album which meant the world to me when I was in my teens and twenties. Jim had produced it in 1974 – as far as Alex Chilton, the group’s front man, had let him. Chilton was the most gifted man Jim had worked with – he had more raw talent than Dylan (though not, perhaps, Aretha Franklin) – but he’d been badly used by the industry. The first time they met, in the early 1960s, Chilton’s eyes had been the size of dinner plates (aged 12, he’d just taken peyote given to him by William Eggleston, the photographer). When they were recording 3rd/Sister Lovers, Chilton would sneak into the studio at night to fuck up the work they’d done during the day. Jim thought the album was about three things: disintegration, entropy and the geography of Memphis, all of which endeared it to him. If memory serves, here are a few things that he told me about it:
‘O, Dana’ was about a woman Chilton had a crush on but never talked to. Instead, he’d eavesdrop, write things she said down in his notebook and, eventually, sing them. There’s a line in the song that I’d never untangled, so I played it for Jim who smiled and said: ‘We do argue beaucoups.’
‘Holocaust’ was a song Chilton wrote for or about his girlfriend’s mother. He thought of it as a happy song.
Chilton told Jim that he’d only played ‘Dream Lover’ three times: once when he wrote it, once for his girlfriend, once to record it. One of those times, Chilton said, was one time too many.
When I met him I hadn’t heard Jim’s field recordings, which are excellent. And I hadn’t heard Dixie Fried (the only solo album he’d made up to that point; he went on to make several others in the last years of his life). But Shangri-La records, in Memphis, carried a Japanese pressing of the CD, which I bought on a cross-country road trip and listened to, more or less on repeat, for a few thousand miles. In Where Dead Voices Gather (2001) Nick Tosches called Dixie Fried ‘a dark gale-force reworking of old Southern music’ – high praise, which got it just about right without doing much to keep the album in print. But Light in the Attic records are about to reissue the album, Dickinson’s memoirs (parts of which appeared, last year, in the Oxford American) are due out in 2017, and I wish Jim were around to see it all, though there’s comfort in the epitaph he wrote for himself: ‘I’m not gone, I’m just dead.’