Sunday, August 9, 2015


If I saw a film about R.L. Burnside's life, I'm not sure I'd believe half of it. He was born in Lafayette County, Mississippi. In his teens, he was taught to play guitar by, among others, Mississippi Fred McDowell, who was a neighbor. In his early twenties, he moved to Chicago where his estranged father lived, to find work. He hung out with Muddy Waters, who was his cousin in law, and around Maxwell Street, ground zero for Chicago blues. But the job market wasn't as he had hoped it would be, and in the space of a year his father, two brothers and two uncles were murdered. So after three years there he high tailed back south. 

Within a few years he would end up incarcerated, after killing a man at a craps game. Here's where it starts to get really thick. His stint was at Parchman Farm. That Parchman Farm. And all of this was all before he had recorded anything. His first recordings were field recordings done in 1967 by George Mitchell, whose body of work would later be issued by Arhoolie, Rounder and Fat Possum. Mitchell had been tipped off to Burnside by Othar Turner of the New Star Fife and Drum band, those rhythmic voodoo nuts from yesterday. Man, this shit is getting deep.

I'm sorry, that is one baddass mic stand. Burside playing at a picnic, 1978. A Lomax joint.

Burnside recorded for several labels, but his spike in popularity came after being signed to Fat Possum, a label started by the editor and a writer for Living Blues magazine. Soon after that, Jon Spencer convinced him to record with his Blues Explosion, resulting in A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, released on Matador. Proving that there were no sour grapes, Living Blues called it "perhaps the worst blues album ever made", and, of course, the Spencer crowd ate it up. The horror of blues horrors was yet to come. Among other later releases were three remix albums, ordinarily not necessarily a bad thing. But these were the type of remixes that make even an armchair purist cringe. Remixed to attract the techno, downtempo and hip-hop markets. Oh the humanity.

On top of everything else, Burnside is probably the only artist who was a sharecropper, played juke joints and played with the Blues Explosion as backing band and opened for the Beastie Boys. He played at Richard Gere's birthday party for crying out loud. Late in his career, under his doctors orders, he quit drinking, and then claimed it left him unable to play guitar. Who writes this shit? No one would believe that movie.

R.L. Burnside - Just Like a Bird Without a Feather mp3 at Article 11
R.L. Burnside - Let My Baby Ride mp3 at ATumblr (?)
R.L. Burnside - Nothin' Man mp3 at Review Stalker
R.L. Burnside - Alice Mae mp3 at PS Celerities (?)
R.L. Burnside - Miss Maybelle mp3 at ATumblr (?)
R.L. Burnside and family: Boogie instrumental (1978) at YouTube Check thee drummer, He looks like he's ten.
R.L. Burnside - Going Down South at YouTube Juke joint clip, insanely cool.

No comments: