ANNIVERSARIES: Blues Great R.L. Burnside Born 85 Years Ago


R.L. Burnside first recorded at age 40, remained obscure until 65, and was a legend at 75. Born on November 23, 1926 in Oxford, Mississippi, he spent most of his life in his rural native area, where he worked as a sharecropper as late as 1979, though he lived in Chicago and Memphis for short periods. His appearance in the Robert Mugge/Robert Palmer 1992 documentary movie and soundtrack album Deep Blues and his acclaimed 1994 Fat Possum album Too Bad Jim seemed to come out of nowhere to catch the attention of not only blues fans but also the underground rock crowd. But R.L. (pronounced "Rule" by his friends) had been on an Arhoolie compilation LP in 1967, and as his fame rose, several pre-Deep Blues albums reappeared with wider distribution.

Where did Burnside's striking style come from? The decline of the Mississippi sharecropping system and the region's subsequent economic slump led to many railroad lines being discontinued. The Northwest Mississippi hills became relatively isolated, making the character of the area's music more distinctive. Burnside learned directly from Mississippi Fred McDowell, and the regional standard "Shake 'em on Down," associated with McDowell and a hit for Bukka White back in the 1930s, is the first track on Too Bad Jim, with Burnside's shimmering slide guitar sound and rough, his droning vocals menacing.

But Burnside kept evolving, playing with an electric band of family members in area juke joints. And after his fame increased, he jammed with rock musicians and allowed some of his music to be given electronic treatments. No matter what the setting, Burnside's music has hypnotic appeal, augmented by his instrumental skill and powerful personality. Here I rank the ten best Burnside albums.

1. Too Bad Jim (Fat Possum)

There are tracks here with the structure and progression of 12-bar blues or something close to it, such as "Fireman Ring the Bell," a variation on the Delta standard "Rollin' and Tumblin'," and a solo track, Lightnin' Hopkins' "Short-Haired Woman." But the tunes that most reflect the indigenous hill country style are area standards such as "Old Black Mattie" with no chord changes or steady meter, just unending one-chord drones built around individual vocal phrases answered by guitar fillips and ornamented by the drummer's rhythm changes and the guitarist's filigree. The emphasis on the timbre of the lead guitar is great, and Burnside gets a unique snapping tone. On solo tracks such as "Miss Glory B." and "Short-Haired Woman," Burnside plays more ornately, using the idiosyncratic timbres of different strings or fret positions for variety. 

2. Burnside on Burnside (Fat Possum)

Fat Possum was criticized in some quarters for altering Burnside's sound on Come on In and Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down, and this was the label's response: a January 2001 concert at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, OR on Burnside St. -- hence the album title -- with his working group of long-time collaborator Kenny Brown on guitar and grandson Cedric Burnside on drums  (supplemented by four tracks from a San Francisco gig the same month). It may be just three people, but they raise quite a ruckus -- this is as full and powerful a sound as most rock bands, and as solid a groove as any dance music -- even if it's more ramshackle -- on a representative set list of Delta standards and Burnside signature tunes. It's about to be issued on vinyl.

3. First Recordings (Fat Possum)

This reissues the 1967-68 Mississippi recordings by George Mitchell for Arhoolie that first documented Burnside's music. "Rolling and Tumbling" (with Red Ramsey on harmonica) and the solo "Mellow Peaches" and "I Believe" (AKA "Dust My Broom"), the latter especially haunting, are enough by themselves to make this CD a must-own. Burnside plays acoustic guitar throughout, laying bare the roots of his style. The music is less raucous, more intimate than his more famous '90s electric recordings, but still absolutely spellbinding. The sound quality is excellent throughout.

4. My Black Name A-Ringin' (Genes)

Recorded in 1969 on Adelphi Records in connection with a documentary film, this is another invaluable look at the early part of Burnside's career. Sometimes he's solo, sometimes he's joined by Ramsey and guitarist Jesse Vortis. Most of the pieces of Burnside's repertoire are in place already, but his younger voice is richer and stronger than it would be later, while his guitar style at this point is more ornate -- he sounds like he was more used to playing solo, with his style more focused on the requirements of performing alone. The ancient title track (solo) is especially moving and beautiful, very close to classic Delta blues.

5. Raw Electric 1979-1980 (Inside Sounds)

David Evans recorded Burnside – still well before he was famous -- with his family band, The Sound Machine (Joseph and Daniel Burnside on guitars; on drums, Duwayne Burnside for one track, R.L.'s former son-in-law, Calvin Jackson, elsewhere) for High Water Recording Company, a division of the University of Memphis, for "programs in Commercial Music and Ethnomusicology (Regional Studies)." Mostly recorded at R.L.'s home in August 1979, this documents the sound of the group he used to play at juke joints, for dancing. Besides several of R.L.'s signature tunes, there are Delta standards ("Dust My Broom," "Rolling and Tumbling," "Walking Blues," "Sitting on Top of the World") Chicago blues standards by men from the Delta (Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers), and soul covers. The band's rambling grooves are powerfully irresistible. Another Evans-recorded album from the same time period, Sound Machine Groove, includes some of the group's disco-tinged efforts.

6. Acoustic Stories (MC)

This is another all-acoustic outing, from 1988. Hearing Burnside playing his favorite originals plus John Lee Hooker's "When My First Wife Left Me," "Hobo Blues," and "Meet Me in the Barroom," Robert Johnson's "Kindhearted Woman Blues," and the Delta standards "Walking Blues" and "Poor Black Mattie" (AKA "Old Black Mattie") on acoustic guitar makes his roots clear and shows his adeptness on the instrument more than when he uses a band (some tracks here have harmonica by John Neremberg, who was playing regularly with him at the time, but there are no further musicians involved). Burnside sounds looser and more comfortable in the New York studio here than in the Netherlands (below), giving this album a slight edge. Neremberg compiled a more varied, also worthwhile album of Burnside material, Well Well Well.

7. Mr. Wizard (Fat Possum)

This 1997 set draws on a variety of sessions, with two stunning solo tracks bookending five stomping trio tracks (with grandson Cedric Burnside on drums) and a pair where R.L. and Kenny Brown are joined again by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (see below), with Spencer's contributions including Theramin. This is all strong, spirited material. The slippery slide guitar style of Brown (referred to in this disc's liner notes as "R.L.'s only white son") is displayed at its finest on "Snake Drive."

8. Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down (Fat Possum)

This 2000 album is the best of Fat Possum's sonic updatings of Burnside's style, with electric piano, organ, and even synthesizer, along with deejay scratching (superfluous but harmless), looping, and fairly slick backing musicians including guitarists Smokey Hormel and Rick Holmstrom -- and with Burnside only singing and talking, not playing. It opens with a deeply moody version of Skip James's "Hard Time Killing Floor" that's so broodingly powerful that it casts a shadow on almost everything that follows. The one exception is the title track, a traditional spiritual with just Kenny Brown's guitar accompanying Burnside's ruminative vocal. Don Covey's "Chain of Fools" -- yes, the Aretha Franklin hit -- is a surprise cover, but works pretty well, and some of the more obscure corners of Burnside's repertoire are explored.

9. Come On In (Fat Possum)

This 1998 album was the first Burnside album to shock blues purists, but "It's Bad You Know" showed up on The Sopranos. The minute-long opening track starts with a very basic and prominent hip-hop beat, and like six other tracks here, it's "programmed" by Tom Rothrock (responsible for the sound of Beck's "Loser"). They're all so stripped-down that they don't compromise the spirit of Burnside's rough-hewn sound, even when the beats are electronic. The most radical reworkings sample snippets of his vocals, throbbing and grinding with a sexy, sinister edge. For contrast, the title track offers a slice of pure Burnside, just him singing in his drawling tone and playing electric guitar in his usual sprawling, bare-bones style. When a small bit of his guitar line is sampled and looped in a second version, it sounds like a riff Hendrix could have played.

10. A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (Matador)

This 1996 collaboration with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is comparatively no sterling effort in Burnside's discography, but was very important in expanding his audience. His band records have never been about neatness, but everybody plays in the same key; not so here when Judah Bauer's cheesy Casio (sounding like a toy organ) meanders painfully on "Walkin' Blues," disfiguring a nuanced performance by Burnside. On "Snake Drive," Spencer's closing screams are cartoonish. But otherwise, the collaboration brings out Burnside's warped humor more than usual, and by showing this then-69-year-old holding his own amid the New Yorkers' punky sonic blasts, added variety to his catalog and brought him attention beyond the blues crowd. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer who most recently wrote a three-part song cycle setting tanka by Fumiko Nakajo.


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