September 3, 2005

Bluesman R.L. Burnside Dead At 78

Mississippi blues guitarist/singer R.L. Burnside died in a Memphis hospital on September 1. He was 78.

From his Fat Possum bio:
R.L. Burnside was born in Lafayette County, near Oxford, Mississippi in 1926. As a young man R.L. moved North into the neighboring Marshall County and began sharecropping. Inspired by John Lee Hooker's '50s hit "Boogie Chillun'," R.L. began singing blues and playing guitar. In addition to the Hooker 45 rpm there were other local forces that influenced R.L. as well, such as Mississippi Fred McDowell and Ranie Burnette.

Fed up with the hopelessness of sharecropping, Burnside migrated to Chicago in hopes of finding economic opportunity. Chicago did not work out. In the span of one month R.L.'s father, brother and uncle were murdered. ... Around 1959 he returned to Mississippi to again work the farms and raise a family. He also started to play music at night and on weekends.
Burnside's first recordings were for the Arhoolie label in the late 1960s. For two decades, he played with the Sound Machine, a band which included his sons Joseph and Daniel, as well as son-in-law Calvin Jackson.

In the early 1990s, Burnside was featured in "Deep Blues," a documentary film based on Robert Palmer's classic book of the same name. Palmer later produced Burnside's Too Bad Jim album for the Fat Possum label.

Burnside remained open-minded when it came to modern music; two of his more recent albums were A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (recorded with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) and Come On In (which combined blues and electronica).

I was fortunate to hear (and meet) Burnside one summer night in 1995 at The Bottom Line in New York City. This is what I wrote at the time for Request magazine:
R.L. Burnside is seated center stage with a guitar in his lap, but this isn't MTV Unplugged. The 68-year-old Mississippi native's amp is cranked. The room is rocking.

Burnside is doing what he does best -- working a one-chord riff back and forth into a sensual groove -- during the opening night of the Fat Possum Mississippi Juke Joint Caravan in New York City. The tour, which also features Junior Kimbrough and David Thompson, continues through September.

Burnside and Kimbrough are well-known neighbors in Mississippi's northern hill country; Kimbrough runs a popular juke joint in Chulahoma off Highway 4. While both guitarists are labeled "traditional" players, they are neither nostalgic nor conservative musicians. Rather, they have resisted outside influences and kept their music vital -- a living, breathing tradition that continues to evolve.

Unlike most modern blues musicians, Kimbrough and Burnside wouldn't grandstand if you paid them. They rely on gritty hip-shaking rhythms, and though both players draw from the region's musical history, their presentations are very different. Burnside's raw, emotional slide work compels you to dance to even his most morose blues, while Kimbrough's songs of unbridled lust are eerily somber and pensive. His minimalist grooves are unlike anything in modern blues, flowing thick as molasses, enveloping the listener like quicksand.

Burnside and Kimbrough rarely play outside the South, although Burnside has appeared at various festivals and toured Europe. The Caravan also is a family outing for Burnside, whose 18-year-old grandson, Cedric Jackson, plays drums behind him. The immensely talented Jackson flew into New York a few hours before show time; his high school exams allowed him to miss the 27-hour (mostly unair-conditioned) bus ride from Mississippi to Manhattan.

Backstage, Burnside and Kimbrough laugh off the length of that trip. They're looking forward to giving the rest of the country a dose of what fuels Kimbrough's juke on Sunday nights.
Check out Too Bad Jim for some of Burnside's best blues.


Anonymous said...

I first discovered R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough after having my interested in the blues reinvigorated following a trip to a juke joint in Natchitoches, LA a couple years ago.

I had never even heard of Mississippi hill country blues until I dug beyond the Delta, Chicago and Texas blues which seem to occupy the forefront of what little spotlight the blues has nowadays.

One listen to A Ass Pocket of Whiskey and I was hooked. Rest in peace, R.L.

laura k said...

A great post, and so nice to read your music writing again. I hope you will link to this at ICB.