Take Me to the River: documentary brings state’s musical magic into focus

Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Elvis Presley. Those are all names that pioneered the formation of America’s music. All world-class musicians. All Mississippians. That musical legacy — now 200 years in the making — will continue to be honored through a national concert tour inspired by a 2014 documentary, Take Me to the River. Directed by Martin Shore, a mogul of both the entertainment and real estate industries, the film documents the collaboration of award-winning Memphis and Mississippi Delta musicians with young artists on a new album in the cross-generational, multiracial and multigender recording style of Memphis’ musical heyday.

Martin Shore and Terrence Howard during the filming of the documentary, Take Me to the River

Shore grew up in Philadelphia, Pa., but his drum teacher taught him early on to appreciate the talent coming from the Mississippi Delta and Memphis region. Touring with McComb native and blues legend Bo Diddley exposed Shore further to the Mississippi sound.

“At a very young age, I really understood the significance of it,” Shore said. “And it just kind of grew and grew and grew to the point where I felt like I was on this earth to make this story come alive and to chronicle it and to make sure it was looked after.”

That sense of obligation became even stronger when, in the span of about a year, Memphis music lost several big names, including Alex Chilton, Issac Hayes, Willie Mitchell and Jim Dickinson.

Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars (Courtesy of EGBA LLC)

“That was our call to action,” said Cody Dickinson, co-creator of Take Me to the River and son of Jim Dickinson, acclaimed record producer, pianist and singer. Cody Dickinson and his brother Luther are the founding members of the North Mississippi Allstars, a Southern rock and blues band since 1996.

“Martin was blown away by, if nothing else, the statistical number of people, for example, in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who are from the Memphis-Mississippi area or region,” Dickinson said. “And we were talking about that and all the amazing people that either live here, work here or are from here — ‘here’ being the greater Memphis-Mississippi River Delta region.”

It was during that conversation at Zebra Ranch, the Dickinson family studio outside of Hernando, when Shore said he had an epiphany.

“It hit me that the story of where our music came from as Americans had never properly been told,” he said. “And that the leaders of the generation that inspired and influenced popular music around the world — and still does today — were leaving us quickly, and I felt like this needed to happen.”

That’s when Shore and Dickinson began dreaming of which artists to pair up. They were able to recruit such legends as Bobby “Blue” Bland, Charles “Skip” Pitts, Charlie Musselwhite, Mavis Staples, as well as musicians from younger generations, such as Snoop Dogg, Lil P-Nut and Yo Gotti.

Bobby Rush and Frayser Boy (Courtesy of EGBA LLC)

“Once we got in the studio and started making music, we had cameras rolling really just because we wanted to document the progress of making the record,” Dickinson said, “But it was the interaction with Al Kapone and Booker T. [Jones] that was so magical when we knew we had something really special.”

Kapone, a Memphis-based hip hop artist, and GRAMMY-winning Jones were the first of many interactions caught on camera. When the album was complete, the footage had a clear theme, summed up by actor and singer Terrence Howard in an opening scene.

“There are special places on this Earth — places of origin,” Howard says. “The Mississippi Delta is one of those places.”

Al Bell with Isaac Hayes and Jim Stewart (Courtesy Stax Museum of American Soul Music)

And no one is more familiar with that musical fertility of the Mississippi River Delta region than Al Bell, former owner of Stax Records in Memphis. Bell, acclaimed record producer and songwriter, worked with the likes of the Staple Singers, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and countless others during the 1960s and early 1970s.

“I saw the unique authenticity in the Mississippi artists and those that were so influenced by the Mississippi artists and musicians,” Bell said. “So getting to Stax, that’s what I was looking for. In my own way, I would talk to the musicians and the writers and the artists, and, as opposed to telling them how to sing it, I would let them sing it the way that they actually feel it so that it becomes authentic. And then we’d put together a musical arrangement around it so that it enhances and embellishes it.”

Dickinson, who moved to Mississippi as a fourth-grader and later was influenced by Hill Country blues legends David “Junior” Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, has found that genuine element to be the key to his own musical success.

“That’s what Mississippi has in spades,” Dickinson said. “If I can inject that into our music, then that’s when people react. That’s when I see people start dancing, and that’s when I feel that we’re doing something special.”

Though the authenticity of Mississippi music is uncontested, its origins are more of an enigma.

Charlie Musselwhite, born in Kosciusko and now renowned for his electric blues harmonica, feels an attachment to the Magnolia State even though he moved to Memphis at age 3. For him, the Delta’s specialness can’t be pinpointed.

“I don’t know how to nail it down, really,” said Musselwhite, who collaborated with The City Champs on “If I Should Have Bad Luck” on the Take Me to the River album. “It’s like a shadow; it’ll move when you think you know where it is or it’ll change shape.”

Mississippi native Charlie Musselwhite (Courtesy of EGBA LLC)

Musselwhite is one of the musicians featured in the film who will also be part of Take Me to the River Live, a national concert tour beginning Sept. 26, with a show at the GRAMMY Museum in Cleveland.

“There’s just something about Mississippians,” Musselwhite said. “It’s like they’re compelled to create. They might not be a trained artist, but it’s still art, and it’s still true, and it’s from the heart, and it’s real.”

But Bell, who grew up around the Arkansas portion of the Mississippi River Delta region, attributes the area’s prolificacy to the number of ethnicities that have inhabited the land through the years.

“I started studying the Mississippi River Delta culture, and I realized that over the centuries you had American Indians, French, Arab, Spanish, African, German, English, Irish, Scots-Irish, Jewish, Italian, Chinese, Mexican and Southeast Asian people that established and maintained their ethnic identities in the Delta,” Bell said. “What most people appreciate about America was born out of that Delta.”

That’s the conclusion Shore hoped the world — particularly natives — would reach by watching Take Me to the River.

Bell outside the former recording studio and current museum. (Photo by Reed Bunzel)

“I feel it’s just so important for local, indigenous Mississippians to be celebrating their contribution to America and the world’s culture. And that it should be a very, very proud thing,” Shore said. “None of the modern-day music as we know it would be in existence if it wasn’t for the musicians that came from Mississippi. End of story.”

According to Bell, who makes an appearance in the documentary, what came out of Mississippi went on to influence not only native son Elvis Presley, but the Beatles, Chuck Berry and countless others.

“It’s important after 200 years for Mississippi to appreciate where she has come from and the contributions she has made to the world culturally and otherwise and that it goes on,” Bell said. “It is continuous. It hasn’t tapered off; as a matter of fact, it’s accelerating.”

It’s accelerating because of musicians such as Musselwhite and Dickinson.

“I would say about the North Mississippi Allstars that we are at our best when we look to the past with reverence and respect while we forge fearlessly into the future,” said Dickinson.

Fellow Mississippians Mavis Staples, left, and Luther Dickinson, right (Courtesy of EGBA LLC)

But awareness and appreciation of Mississippi’s cultural gift to the world is catching on because of people like Shore, too. Not only has Take Me to the River won multiple awards at film festivals all over the country — including South By Southwest’s 24 Beats Per Second Audience Award — but it’s reaching people of all ages off screen as well. Take Me to the River has teamed up with Boston’s Berklee College of Music and their City Music Network, an educational program striving to reach underserved, school-aged children through music.

“I think music is a jumping-off point for discussion in social studies and history and how it is really the soundtrack to our culture,” Shore said. “That’s our holy grail: to continue to have enough outreach so that we get in more and more schools so that we stay there and be part of the landscape for generations to come.”

Take Me to the River Live plays into that initiative.

“When we’re on tour, we not only do outreach during the day when we can — and particularly on days off — but for every concert, we have students come in who are interested in production,” Shore said. “They get to watch how a concert is put on.”

Shore sees this as bigger than just remembering what has been made in the Mississippi River Delta region, after all.

“It’s a real opportunity to chronicle legacy and to pass legacy on,” he said. “To really be able to have a living, breathing resource for generations to come and this generation right now.”

That perpetuation of positive awareness is one aspect of Take Me to the River that Bell found to be special about the film.

Al Bell and Jim Stewart at the desk they shared in Stax (Courtesy Stax Museum of American Soul Music)

“I’m thankful for Mississippi and what was born in Mississippi,” he said. “We can always talk about something that’s bad or something that’s negative or something that’s controversial. But what balances us in life is if we look for the good, and look what came out of Mississippi that was excellent! So I say to Mississippi after 200 years not keep on pushing but move it on up now a little higher and start pushing forward at another level for today’s world. Move into the 21st century, not as it relates to changing the music but as it relates to recognizing that it’s there and promoting it boldly.”

And promoting Mississippi — whether intentionally or not — is what Take Me to the River has done in the five years since its premiere. The film, the tour and the educational initiative continue to shine a bright light on the Magnolia State.

“This is an American story made possible by Mississippians who then — a lot of them — became Memphians,” Shore said. “If you want to understand where popular music came from — what was the cultural jewel that Mississippians gave to the world that came from the Mississippi Delta — that’s it. It’s important to understand it, because you can be better for it in so many ways. What we have is our music, and it came from Mississippi. It came from the Delta. And that’s where the ethereal spirit of music lives.”

A behind the scenes photo of Take Me to the River (Courtesy of EGBA LLC)

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Anna McCollum

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