R.L. Burnside - Biography

Singer-guitarist R.L. Burnside rose to fame amid a fresh wave of interest in the blues during the early 1990s, when his series of popular albums for Fat Possum Records and his romping concert appearances turned him into the principal exponent of North Mississippi’s so-called “hill country blues.” Burnside’s forceful, primal, hypnotic style struck a chord with blues listeners weary of post-Stevie Ray Vaughan virtuosity. His music was also cleverly marketed to a new generation of blues listeners, via punk-styled party-down records with The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and several albums that remixed his music hip-hop style.

Burnside was already in his 60s when the public embraced him, and he was a classic late bloomer. Born Rural Burnside on Nov. 23, 1926, in Harmontown, Miss., he grew up in a sharecropping family. He was taught the fundamentals of guitar by his neighbor, the great blues singer-guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell. In the ‘50s, like many another blues performer, Burnside moved to Chicago, where he met and was no doubt influenced by Muddy Waters (who dated Burnside’s first cousin Anna Mae). But he swiftly soured on the city: After his father, two brothers, and an uncle were all murdered there within a year, he returned to Mississippi in 1959. At some point – all sources are vague on the date -- he was arrested for shooting a local bully to death, and served six months at the Parchman prison farm.

Burnside worked and performed in obscurity until August 1967, when folklorist George Mitchell, who was scouting North Mississippi for undocumented talent, recorded the 40-year-old Burnside on the advice of Fred McDowell and fife-and-drum bandleader Othar Turner. The session, cut at Burnside’s home outside Coldwater, was excerpted on a 1969 Arhoolie Records LP, and issued comprehensively on CD as First Recordings (2003), though the latter release bears the incorrect recording date of 1968. The sides betray the influence of John Lee Hooker (whose trance-inducing “Boogie Chillen” had a major impact on Burnside), Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and his mentor McDowell. The repertoire includes songs he would record again and again until the end of his life: “Come On In,” “Goin’ Down South,” “Poor Black Mattie,” “Jumper On the Line.”

Burnside later said of the Mitchell recordings, “That got me on the road.” Through the 1970s and ‘80s, Burnside was able to secure European festival appearances on the back of those first recordings. He also returned to the studio sporadically. In 1980, David Evans of the University of Memphis, whose High Water Records recorded regional performers, cut Burnside with his family group Sound Machine (which included sons Daniel and Joseph and brother-in-law Calvin Jackson on drums); the album Sound Machine Groove (1980) offers an early look at his pungent electric style. The acoustic Mississippi Hill Country Blues (1994) compiles fine 1982 and 1984 dates for the Dutch label Swingmaster, with a couple of Mitchell recordings thrown in.

Things began to change for Burnside at the dawn of the ‘90s. In 1991, he and his neighbor, singer-guitarist and Holly Springs, Mississippi, juke joint owner Junior Kimbrough, were featured in Robert Mugge’s documentary Deep Blues, a celluloid update of the like-titled 1982 book by writer Robert Palmer, who narrated the film. Former New York Times music critic Palmer, who was then teaching at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, encouraged a couple of young blues enthusiasts, Living Blues editor Peter Lee and Matthew Johnson, to build an independent label around the raw hill country music of Burnside and Kimbrough. Burnside’s album Bad Luck City (1993) was the first release on their Fat Possum imprint; Lee soon left the label in Johnson’s hands.

Palmer himself produced Burnside’s second Fat Possum album Too Bad Jim (1994). That taut, powerful collection, which included definitive versions of “Shake ‘Em On Down,” “Goin’ Down South,” and “Old Black Mattie,” helped put Burnside and the label over nationally. The release also impressed New York blues-punk singer-guitarist Jon Spencer, who hired Burnside’s band – which included his white protégé Kenny Brown (an accompanist since 1971) on slide guitar and his young grandson Cedric Burnside on drums – to open for The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on their 1995 tour.

The relationship between the two bands, who usually ended their shows together with an onstage jam, bore commercial fruit after Fat Possum’s Johnson recorded Burnside, Brown, and the members of the Blues Explosion in an impromptu February 1996 session at a deserted Holly Springs hunting lodge. Released jointly by Fat Possum and Spencer’s label Matador Records, the raucous, bawdy A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (1996) is credited with broadening the bluesman’s audience (and with sustaining Fat Possum’s shaky financial fortunes). Both the label and Burnside received harsh criticism from purists, who found little to admire in the album’s loud and quite obviously drunken revelry. The similarly styled Mr. Wizard (1997) quickly followed.

Seeking a way to corral still more listeners, to enliven Burnside’s admittedly narrow repertoire, and to get around the septuagenarian musician’s increasing disinclination to work in the studio, Fat Possum released Come On In (1998). The set, comprising beat-infused remixes – some by Beck’s co-producer Tom Rothrock – of previously recorded Burnside tracks further set devout blues lovers’ teeth on edge (to the delight of iconoclastic Fat Possum owner Johnson). It spawned two remix-oriented sequels: Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down (2000) and A Bothered Mind (2004).

In 2001, Burnside issued a wonderful live summation by his working trio, Burnside On Burnside, cut at clubs in Portland (literally on Burnside Street) and San Francisco; in what Fat Possum must have considered either a vindication or an annoyance, the set received a Grammy nomination as best traditional blues album. A heart attack Burnside suffered later that year led him to curtail his live performance schedule. In 2003, he was featured in Mandy Stein’s documentary film about Fat Possum and hill country blues, You See Me Laughin’.

Burnside died in a Memphis hospital at the age of 78 on Sept. 1, 2005. His sons Duwayne and Garry and grandson Cedric all continue to carry on the family musical tradition; Duwayne is a former member of The North Mississippi All Stars, whose early repertoire included several R.L. Burnside compositions.

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