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The Word (1)

The Word is an exciting 5 piece American rock, gospel and soul super band featuring Robert Randolph, John Medeski and three members of the North Mississippi Allstars. They have just released a fabulous new album called Soul Food and have also been added to the bill for Bluefest 2016. Greg Phillips spoke to one of The Word’s main songwriters, drummer Cody Dickinson.

There’s no doubt that Bluesfest offers a multitude of world class headliners to attract music fans to Byron Bay year in, year out. However, for anyone who has been to the annual music festival, you’ll know that it’s the pleasant little surprises which really make this festival special. I’m talking about the artists which you may never have heard of before or hadn’t thought much about but tend to blow you away once you’ve experienced them live on stage. I get the feeling that The Word, a 5 piece gospel, blues rock band from America is going to be 2016’s Bluesfest revelation.

The Word’s pedigree is impeccable. It features pedal-steel phenomenon Robert Randolph, keyboard sensation John Medeski, and three members of the North Mississippi Allstars, bassist Chris Chew and brothers Luther (guitar) and Cody Dickinson (drums). Formed back in 2000, the band has just released a new album, Soul Food, which features 13 spicy, uplifting, groove-laden taste treats, merely a preview of the electricity this band will unleash next Easter on the Bluefest stage.

“When The Word steps on stage we give it our all and leave it all up there,” The Word’s drummer Cody Dickinson tells me. “We encourage everyone to come along and feed us some energy, cos’ we want to give it right back!”

Cody Dickinson has music running through his veins and comes from southern rock royalty. His father Jim, who died in 2009, was an influential musician and record producer who worked with Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Big Star, Ry Cooder and Bob Dylan to name a handful. Cody’s earliest musical memories are of seeing his dad’s band Mud Boy and the Neutrons playing live when he was just four years old.
“My childhood was more normal than what you would expect,” recalls Cody. “I was like any other crazy kid. My dad would go off to work but every once in a while he would take us to the studio. He would generally do 20 to 30 day projects with bands and he would bring us on one day usually, to hang out and meet people. I got to see Tom Dowd work with Primal Scream. I remember seeing Jason Spaceman of Spiritualized record, cool stuff like that.”

Cody’s music tastes were formed organically, by just soaking in the sounds of his childhood. Consequently, he has a broad musical knowledge and doesn’t discriminate between genres. “My dad was really across the board musically and I am the same way,” he says. “If the music speaks to me, then I know it immediately. It’s an immediate connection. I don’t care where it comes from. If it hits, it hits.”

It’s no surprise then, that Cody and his brother Luther helped to form The Word and share their talents and eclectic musical tastes with these other amazing musicians. With so many different styles and influences coming together, I wondered what the starting point was for a song by The Word.
“That’s a good question,” Cody says pausing to come up with an answer. “There is a lot of improvisation in The Word. A lot of times, we’ll just walk on stage and start playing and it’s the same way in the studio. We’ll get inspired by a conversation or an experience or a good meal and we’ll sit down and just start playing. A lot of what you hear on Soul Food is pure improvisation.  That’s what is so great about playing with musicians like Robert Randolph and John Medeski. Those guys’ ears are so big we can just do it.”

As you’d expect, Cody’s drumming style is versatile too and he utilises a variety of drum sounds on the Soul Food album. For instance, on You Brought The Sunshine there’s a big tom sound. Chocolate Cowboy is all snare and cymbal. Play All Day sounds like he’s drumming on the rim of the drum or perhaps even a cardboard box. He loves to mix it up and keep it interesting.
“There are a  couple of things at play there,” he says. “One is that I love to use electronics and I love to incorporate modern sounds into the more traditional roots music, especially with the drums. It works really well with our music. Also another big thing that you hearing there, is we recorded the record at two very different locations. One was New York City, Brooklyn Sound which is a very modern studio and the other one was the classic Memphis Royal Studio which is where they recorded all of Al Green’s classic hits. So with this record, geographically we would go from New York to Memphis. As soon as we go to Memphis, it takes on a completely different texture and tone which I think adds to the overall flavour of the album and makes it flow and feel good.”

Cody Dickinson, a Pearl drum endorsee, admits to having a lot of drum kits at home but suggests that he’s more of an accumulator than a devout collector. “I have so many kits, it is ridiculous” he laughs. “It’s really just from playing drums for so long. I have a great Ayotte kit with wooden rims from Canada. Of course I have tons of great Pearl drums. I have a Masters Series kit, a Reference series kit. I haven’t really started collecting vintage drums yet but that is my next move.”

Playing drums is not the only role Cody plays in The Word. He’s also one of the main songwriters in the band and takes his creative inspiration from many different sources, including speeches. The track New World Order off the Soul Food album is based on a speech by someone Cody admires immensely, Martin Luther King.
“It’s so amazing that song has taken on a life and the story has got out there,” says Cody, surprised that I knew of the song’s genesis. “That’s such a positive thing. Before a show I have different types of rituals and sometimes I listen to speeches to get inspired. Of course I love Martin Luther King, he was incredible. ‘Mountain top’ is my favourite (speech) but at the end of ‘I Have a Dream’, he goes into a spiritual. I was listening to this speech and he starts to sing. The speech is so moving and then when he gets to the end, it gets melodic and that melody just got stuck in my head. So I started playing piano and picking out chords around his melody and that turned into New World Order.”

Having lived such a rich musical life and continuing to do so, Cody has ventured into the world of film to pass on some of his extensive knowledge and enthusiasm for America’s great musical heritage in the form of music documentaries. In 2014, he and his director/producer fried Martin Shore premiered ‘Take Me To The River’, a feature documentary celebrating the inter-generational and inter-racial musical influence of Memphis in the face of pervasive discrimination and segregation. Cody sees his involvement in documenting music history as somewhat of a calling.
“I do feel a responsibility,” he tells me. “I have been so blessed in my life to be part of these incredible groups of musicians and communities of artists that it is a privilege for me to able to tell their story. Music is such a powerful communicator. I am able to capture the region and the history of these great cities like Memphis, Tennessee and tell the story via music. Also stick with what you know. I think there is a real strength in me being able to make movies about music because it is something that I grew up around and really understand. It was something that me and my friend and co creator Martin Shore were talking about for years. We started losing people. There were key legacy artists that we wanted to include in the film, such as my father, Alex Chilton, Willie Mitchell. We started losing these cornerstones of the scene and it turned out to be a very urgent project, where we realised we had to do it immediately. It was a calling, absolutely.”

Dickinson and Shore did such an amazing job putting together ‘Take Me To The River’, that respected arts facilities such as Berklee College and New York State schools have incorporated the film into their curriculum, utilising interactive apps to help students learn about RnB and soul music. At the time of our interview, Cody was in Louisiana meeting with possible partners to collaborate with on his next project ‘Take Me To The River – New Orleans’. For the purpose of our conversation however, Cody was more intent on talking up The Word and their trip to Australia next year.
“The Word is such a magnificent band,” he says enthusiastically. “I feel so humbled to play with such incredible musicians. Every time I come to your country, I have an amazing time and I’m really looking forward to bringing this band to Australia.”

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