Interview: Martin Shore of Take Me To The River All-Stars on coming to Red Rooster

Films, records and an educational programme documenting the real roots of popular music.

If you are of a certain age with a keen interest in American roots music you will probably have at least an awareness of the music of New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta, and Memphis, even if you don’t have a deep understanding of how the music from these areas influenced American and the world’s popular music. However, this isn’t necessarily true for younger listeners, and this potential lack of awareness means that a lot of listeners don’t have any understanding or appreciation of the roots of popular music and the associated cultural implications across the modern world. Musician, producer and film director Martin Shore not only realised this, but he also had the ability and capability to do something about it. He made a film which was the start of a series celebrating the music of New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta, and Memphis, the film soundtracks were released as albums, and the whole Take Me To The River organisation is non-profit making and has an educational arm. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Martin Shore in California over Zoom to discuss the first UK appearance of the Take Me To The River All-Stars at Red Rooster and the background to Take Me To The River. He explains that the idea crystalised when he was at Jim Dickinson’s Zebra Ranch.

How are you and where are you?

I’m great. I’m on my way to LA from San Francisco, a journey I do regularly because my edit bay is in Los Angeles and my music studio is in San Francisco. It’s a little bit back and forth, but it works out really well.

You seem to be a very busy man in the music and film industry with multiple hats, how do you see yourself?

I’m the producer and director for Take Me To The River, I started my career as a musician when I was six years old, I was a touring musician and then I did music for films, films like ‘Saw’ and ‘Saw II’ and some others. Then I produced music and independent films, I produced films for Tony and Ridley Scott, and I always had my eye on the director’s chair, and my directorial debut was ‘Take Me To The River’. We won South By Southwest and I think seventeen film festivals around the world. I did a couple of features in between, and then we came back with ‘Take Me To The River: New Orleans’, we recently won a Grammy for our record. We have records that accompany the film and both are available on all streaming services and physically.

Where did the idea and impetus for Take Me To The River come from?

It was an epiphany. I was working on some music for a film with Jim Dickinson, the famous producer and musician, and his sons Cody and Luther Dickinson who form the North Mississippi Allstars. We were working at Zebra Ranch, which is Jim and the family’s studio, and it was 100 degrees and 100% humidity like it is in Mississippi, and we took a break. Jim was into decomposing art, he would just put stuff out on his property and it was interesting to watch trees and all kinds of plants grow through this decomposing art, and the epiphany was I realised that the story of where American music had came from hadn’t been, in my opinion, properly told, and how it has influenced and inspired the world’s popular music. It seemed like a very important message for the current generation, and generations to follow, to be able to understand where their music had come from, it hadn’t just popped out of a streaming platform, or the internet or wherever they consume their music, that it actually had tentacles and roots. America gave the world popular music as its contribution to world culture.

Jim Dickinson himself did quite a lot to keep the roots of music alive as well as moving the music forward.

Absolutely. Jim was fantastic, he was a member of the Dixie Flyers, made up of Memphis musicians who recorded at Muscle Shoals before becoming the house band for Atlantic at Criteria Sound in Miami, Florida, a formidable musician, and the keyboard solo on ‘Wild Horses’ is Jim Dickinson, he played with Bob Dylan, he produced Ry Cooder and many, many artists. A great musician, artist and producer, and he had a lot of influence as a mentor to me.

What does it feel like on stage honouring that history, is there any pressure or does it feel more natural?

That’s a really great question. The one thing to set the environment and atmosphere is to make sure that everyone was comfortable the moment they walked in the door, and that they were also comfortable coming in knowing that we are non-profit and the importance of our mission is education. Our long-term music partner is Berklee College of Music, and they have commissioned a Common Core curriculum in high schools and middle schools across the country. They have also been instrumental in a college course that is now making its way internationally as well as nationally in the United States. The musicians come because they know it is for a bigger cause, and that is to document our masters, our legends, our legacy musicians, and to document their artistic process and also for younger musicians, and younger stars, who are developing their career to have the opportunity to collaborate with master musicians before they are not here. We don’t want to lose the story, we want to keep the connection, and I do think that those musicians that do participate in ‘Take Me To The River’, they understand it, especially now there are a couple of award-winning films and award-winning records out.

What does it feel like touring in America with the current fragmented society?

The thing that we do, musicians and artists, particularly Take Me To The River with its educational initiative, our live shows, and everything we do surrounding that, is to make sure we are spreading love and the importance of togetherness, breaking down walls, being inclusive and keeping that message in the forefront. It is interesting when I stand on the front of the stage and do the introduction of our shows, there has never been a poor reception to that. Everybody wants that, it is why they go to church, it is why they are spiritual, they want connection, they want fellowship. In most cases, they implore these walls that keep us away from each other to be ripped down, whether it is generational, ethnicity, gender, or genre, or whatever. The idea of being able to enjoy music or art together seamlessly without judgement or politics is something that most people embrace, so we just try spreading positivity and the message of love, understanding, and togetherness.

How do you decide which songs will be part of the setlist?

In the beginning with the first film, almost all the musicians had no idea who they would be collaborating with until they got to the studio, so we really had to think about what might be right. Each session is really a three-act play, as is the film, and the three acts in the session are, OK we all come together and we figure out who’s doing what, what are we going to do, and how are we going to do it. It is a collaborative process, we definitely come in with ideas, and in some cases, we floated ideas back and forth.  With ‘Take Me To The River: New Orleans’ there was more of a shorthand because the musical community is very tight, and they are used to hearing other New Orleanian musicians, they are used to some degree collaborating with them. There are a couple of big events each year where New Orleanian musicians have the opportunity to listen to and play with each other, that would be Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. So, it is a little bit more shorthand with the New Orleanian musicians.

We are doing ‘Take Me To The River: London’ now, and that is probably the most challenging just having to find the right material, but it is a collaborative effort that starts with ideas flowing back and forth. Like I said, the New Orleans music community is very tight, and they listen to each other, and they will sit in with other musicians and play with other musicians. So a lot of the material is familiar, and if they don’t know it they have at least heard of it, and they at least will know the artist, their style and what they are up to. In other music communities, it is not as seamless and takes a bit of us getting our heads together. We do write songs for the films, so there are originals, and that’s the funnest part when we start writing new and original songs.

You are about to play the Red Rooster Festival.

We are very excited about Red Rooster, it is a great festival. Cody and Luther Dickinson were telling me about it, they played it last year, and they couldn’t stop talking about it and how wonderful it is that there is a festival to highlight the music of the Mississippi Delta and Louisiana. What a treat to have that so close to London in such a beautiful setting, I couldn’t think of a better way to express the music to music fans, and to people who are interested in where a lot of the music that inspired the British Invasion came from, and that is what ‘Take Me To The River: London’ is all about. It is a perfect match, and the folks behind it, Rupert Orton and Harry FitzRoy, their attention to detail is beyond reproach. We are really looking forward to it.

Who will be coming over with you?

Well, we’ve got the legendary Hi Rhythm Section who had 27 gold and platinum hit records in a row, and that was a Guinness world record for a time, and was all of Al Green, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, O. V. Wright, to name only a few. So they will be with Marcus Scott, who was lead singer with Tower of Power, we are also bringing Sharde Thomas, granddaughter of Othar Turner, and that will feature drum and fife music which is really cool, and Sharde does a great job of keeping that genre alive. There will be Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr. from the Wild Magnolias along with Big Queen Rita Dollis from the Wild Magnolias, representing the Mardi Gras Indian culture. There will be the Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir featuring Izo FitzRoy, Harry’s sister, and they are just fantastic, so fabulous. It’s going to be an unmissable two-hour show. Come and see the entire festival but don’t miss our set.

What can you say about ‘Take Me To The River: London’?

Well, we are telling the story of the British Invasion in a little bit different way. We are making a new record, like we did with the other two films, we are putting the legendary British Invasion artists with some of the original musicians that inspired them, and also with musicians who have been inspired by the same songbook, the same artists, and in some cases the same material, all coming back to the Mississippi Delta and Louisiana. It is about how the UK was paying more attention to our music than we were, and they took it seriously and put their own spin on it and came and kicked our arse, which is why it is called an invasion. We want to tell that story in a little bit different way so that people will realise how important it was to the history of popular music and how it all came together.

What does the band mean to you personally?

For me, it is about leaving an imprint for generations to come. If you watch all the films you will see that they are what I call evergreens, which means if you go back and watch it after one year, after two years or after three years, it is going to seem as fresh to you as the first time you saw it. I want future generations to understand what our legacy musicians mean to popular music, how it influenced and inspired all the music that came after it, and to have a place where they can understand the people and the artistic process. To me, it is like the Egyptians had hieroglyphics, tombs, and all sorts of ceremonial things in the pyramids, our hieroglyphics for American popular culture is our music and to leave that legacy behind so that people can see who we were, and how their music evolved.

Apart from the London film, what other plans do you have for the future?

That’s a big one, ‘Take Me To The River: London’ is going to be kicking my butt for another two years. We are going to be doing a session when we are in London, and we are just excited for the future. To me, ‘Take Me To The River: London’ is connecting all the dots, and it is exciting because I get to work with both Louisiana and New Orleans musicians, as well as musicians from the Mississippi Delta and Memphis, all of which I have a shorthand with now and I love, and who are already part of the Take Me To The River family.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

Kingfish is one, he has just blown up, and I really like his sensibility and I can’t say enough about him. Cedric Burnside is the same, just a really great, great artist who comes from a great family, and he has a great lineage. There are so many people I could recommend, somebody I saw recently is Joanne Shaw Taylor who was born in London but lives in the States now and she is under the wing of Joe Bonamassa. She is quite a talent, and I think Dave Stewart was the one who discovered her, check her out.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

Strap on your dancing shoes because you are going to have a lot of fun, and you’re not going to be able to stop moving and smiling and having a good time. Our whole mission is to bring everybody together, so we can’t wait to join our UK brothers and sisters in a sharing of fellowship and celebration. If anyone is interested please listen to both records, they are available on all streaming platforms, there is a collector set of ‘Take Me To The River: New Orleans’ which has a coffee table book and coloured vinyl. It is a beautiful box set and is available from Amazon, of course, and also local record stores, which I always try to tell people to pay attention to and support when they can. Stream the films that are on Amazon, Apple Plus, Google Play, and Vimeo. You can use all four platforms, depending on where you are, and what you have access to. Make sure you come to Red Rooster and look for us, we will be doing a live BBC 2 broadcast as well. Looking forward to 2024, we intend to do an extended tour of Europe, and hopefully, we will get to every place where people would like to come and see us.

The films and soundtracks to  ‘Take Me To The River’ and ‘Take Me To The River: New Orleans’ are available now on all the main streaming platforms and physical media outlets.

About Martin Johnson 414 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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