R.L. Burnside is a truly original blues artist and an American treasure.
He hails from the hill country of North Mississippi. And in the hills, they play a different style of blues – pulsating, hip-thrusting, single-chord, groove blues. No eight and 12-bar I-IV-V progressions with a turnaround here. It’s all about the groove. Hill-country blues are designed, for the most part, to keep hordes of hill folk packed into juke joints, dancing and partying until the corn whiskey runs out.
Yes, the North Mississippi hill country style of blues absolutely rocks. And R.L. Burnside is the master.
Born in Lafayette County, Mississippi, in 1926, Burnside’s sharecropping family moved north to Marshall County soon after he was born. As a young boy, Burnside’s first introduction to the blues was at the feet of his neighbor, Mississippi Fred McDowell.
At 16, Burnside began playing guitar. He learned by watching and listening to McDowell. At 21, he began performing at juke joints and house parties with McDowell and another mentor, Ranie Burnette.
Burnside’s first recordings belied his juke joint roots. George Mitchell recorded him on solo acoustic guitar in 1967 for the folk/blues label Arhoolie. Mississippi Delta Blues, Volume II featured Burnside on one side and Joe Callicott on the other (these have recently been re-released by Fat Possum). The album garnered Burnside recognition with the folk/blues crowd, and he was booked in the U.S., Canada, and Europe as a solo hill-country blues artist.
The ’70s killed the careers of many blues men, including Burnside. He toured occasionally in Europe, but returned to Mississippi, and sharecropping, to support his wife, Alice Mae, and his 14 children. Burnside continued to play his music in the juke joints surrounding his home in Marshall County. In the late ’70s, he put together the Sound Machine Groove with his sons, Joseph and Daniel, and his son-in-law, Calvin Jackson. The band featured a more traditional juke joint format – electric bass, electric guitar, drums.
The Sound Machine Groove gained notoriety in North Mississippi, but not beyond. Recorded evidence of this band can be found on R.L. Burnside and the Sound Machine Groove – Raw Electric 1979-1980 and No Monkeys on this Train(reviewed in VG, June ’03).
The blues revival of the ’80s, sparked by Stevie Ray Vaughan, revitalized and electrified Burnside’s career. He began touring the U.S. and Europe a couple of months each year. He played electric guitar, accompanied by harpist Jon Morris, and occasionally, Calvin Jackson on drums. These tours are documented on Burnside’s CDs Well… Well… Well and Acoustic Stories.
In 1991, at the ripe old age of 64, Burnside got his big break. Blues historian Robert Palmer, author of Deep Blues, rediscovered Burnside and included him in the documentary (by Robert Mugge) of the same name. The film is a modern-day romp through the Mississippi hills and delta, spotlighting the heroes of the living blues. It features Burnside performing on the front porch of his home in Holly Springs, Mississippi, surrounded by his family. Dave Stewart of the Eurhythmics accompanies on guitar.
The film led to recording sessions at Junior Kimbrough’s Juke Joint, produced by Palmer, and a new contract with the fledgling Fat Possum Records. With Palmer at the wheel and Burnside, Calvin Jackson (drums), and adopted son Kenny Brown (guitar) manning the guns, the result was Too Bad Jim, a blues album like no other, and featuring bone-crushing grooves, wailing/moaning guitars, and the incredible vocal styling of Burnside.
After Too Bad Jim, the word was out. Burnside and the gang were soon the opening act for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on a tour that ended with a recording session. A few gallons of beer, a couple of jugs of whiskey, and four hours later A Ass Pocket of Whiskey was in the can. The tour and album opened a new fan base for Burnside – young, white, indie rockers. A Ass Pocket of Whiskey features wildly distorted guitar tones, tripped out slide licks by Kenny Brown, Jon Spencer’s gut-wrenching primordial screams, and Burnside’s droning guitar and powerful vocals. Just to spice things up, a dollop of Theremin was added to a few tracks.
Mr. Wizard followed …Whiskey and is a compilation album comprised of tracks excluded from previous releases and some cool live stuff recorded at Burnside’s own juke joint, Burnside Palace. The tracks, “You Gotta Move” written by Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Burnside’s own “Over the Hill,” recorded at the Burnside Palace, are the gems of the CD. The solo cuts feature Burnside playing some down home (you can almost smell the cotton) slide and preacher-like Son House vocals.
Burnside’s appearance in Deep Blues also brought him to the attention of Tom Rothrock, another unlikely collaborator. Rothrock, known for producing Beck and Elliot Smith, brilliantly melded Burnside’s North Mississippi juke blues with modern hip hop and techno. The result of this match made in hell is the critically acclaimed ’98 offering, Come On In, the most successful album to date for Burnside and the Fat Possum label. The album features Kenny Brown’s killer slide and introduces Cedric Burnside (Burnside’s grandson) on drums. The crossover success of Come On In led to tours of Europe and Australia, a warmup gig with the Beastie Boys, inclusion on “The Sopranos” soundtrack, and background for a Nissan television commercial.
The success of Come On In generated another hip hop/techno effort, complete with DJ scratching, titled Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down. Burnside does not play guitar on this album but his tremendous vocal work (check out “Bad Luck City”) more than make up for it. Kenny Brown provides the filthy Mississippi slide on the title track.
Burnside’s latest effort is the 2003 Grammy nominated and 2002 W.C. Handy award winner, Burnside on Burnside. The album features live performances recorded entirely in the Northeast and partially on Burnside Street in Portland, Oregon. The album provides an accurate representation of a Burnside live performance. You get it all on this one: in-your-face grooves (driven by Cedric), mean Mississippi slide (courtesy of Kenny Brown), and Burnside’s field vocals, mesmerizing guitar style, and endearing sense of humor.
Burnside has recently been sidelined with severe health problems. He suffered a heart attack in November, 2002, which resulted in quadruple bypass surgery. His touring days are over, but his spirit and voice are as strong as ever. He has recently been in the studio recording numbers for a Muddy Waters tribute album on Fat Possum. The record is due for release in June. VG caught up with Burnside taking it easy at his home in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Vintage Guitar: When and where did you first hear the blues?
R.L. Burnside: I first heard the blues from Mississippi Fred McDowell. I was seven or eight then. We lived by him, pretty close to him for about 10 or 12 years. Ranie Burnette, he was the next one, ’cause he was married to my Auntie, and he played guitar, you know.
I went along, nobody teach me nothin’, I would just sit and watch them peoples and learn.
Did you learn from listening to records?
Yeah, I listened to records. My grandmother and my mother liked them. They have about all the records every time they come out with one. Yeah, they had one of them old wind-up gram-a-nolas, you know.
Where did you get your first guitar?
Well, Ranie Burnette give it to me. It was a old Q-six (acoustic) guitar. I forget the name of it or who made it, but it was an old Q-six.
Did you ever jam with the fife and drum bands, Sid Hemphill, Napoleon Strickland, and Othar Turner?
Yeah, I played with them guys. We played at picnics and house parties. I’d be playing at a house party, get something going, and those guys be there and we’d start playing.
When did you start playing electric guitar, and what kind was it?
Well, in the ’50s I started playing electric. I don’t remember what kind it was.
Do you remember what kind of amps you had?
Well I had a Peavey one time. Made in Mississippi, you know!
How would you describe the blues you play?
Mississippi blues. Well, they call them Chicago blues, but 90 percent of the people playin’ blues got their home in Mississippi. They had to leave when those guys got those cotton pickin’ machines. There weren’t no jobs, they had to go somewhere. I was in Chicago for a while, trying to make a living. I was working at Howard’s Foundry, and I worked at Minnifield Glass for about two years.
Were you playing guitar back then?
No, I wasn’t playing guitar back then. When I moved up there, I had heard Muddy Waters’ records but I didn’t know he was married to a first cousin of mine, Anna Mae. I got up there and I would go to his house every night and watch him play. I learned a lot from watchin’.
Your first recording session in the ’60s was with Arhoolie records. How did that session come about?
Well, George Mitchell (A&R man for Aroohlie) came around looking for some blues players, saw me sittin’ out there, and recorded me on a little tape. That was in ’67, and he called back in ’68, asked if he could make an album. He had me, Jessie Mae (Hemphill), Joe Callicutt, Ranie Burnette, and all of us on there. And in ’69 I had my first tour to Montreal, Canada. I was playing solo then.
How long did you play solo?
For four or five years. Then I got my sons out of school and they got where they was playing, and then I just take them with me and made a band. We called ourself the Sound Machine Groove.
Do you remember what kind of electric guitar you were playing with the Sound Machine Groove?
(laughs) No, I don’t remember. I think it was a Fender (laughs).
Do you have a guitar and amp in your house right now?
No, I don’t have one. You know, my house burnt down and it burned up my guitars and my amp. I gotta get me another guitar and some amps.
You used to have your own juke joint, Burnside Palace,
Well, one time. But even in Holly Springs, it got so rough, dope started around, you know. And they was shootin’ and killin’ people at those jukes, so they closed a lot of them down. There’re one or two around here in the country where I’m at and two or three in Holly Springs. That’s all there is.
How did you and Kenny Brown hook up?
Well, he lived across the road from Joe Callicutt, and Joe was teaching him how to play. Joe died, and he come over to ask me if I would teach him. I said, “Yeah,” and we started in. We been together ever since.
The late Robert Palmer was a big fan of yours, and he really jump-started your career. How did you meet him?
He was going around looking for different people to make a movie with, you know, and I saw him outside the Baptist church. I wasn’t goin’ to church, I was goin’ some other place, you know, and we met him and he told me he’d be back tomorrow. Junior (Kimbrough) was runnin’ a club back then, and we could meet him at Junior’s club. We went down to Junior’s club – me, Othar Turner, Jessie Mae, and Junior. We did some playing there and then went back to my house. Got me playing on the front porch, you know.
How did you meet Jon Spencer?
Well, he heard one of the CDs we had out and he called Fat Possum and asked them if we could open for them, you know. And he told them, “Yeah.”
I’d heard of him, but never had been around him. And we went out to open for them, and I’d be sittin’ back in the dressing room talkin’ and drinkin’, I’d be tellin’ him old stories (laughs) and he liked ’em, and he said we need to do an album about that. I said, “Man, I can’t do that onstage, that’s too dirty.” And he said, “Naw, people like that, man!”
We stayed out there a couple weeks that time, and I didn’t do the album. I come home and he called and said, “If you ever decide to do that album, R.L., just call me.” I said, “Okay.” And one day, about two weeks after I was home, me and some of my friends was sittin’ out in the yard drinking beer, and Jon Spencer called me and said, “Hey, R.L., are you ready to do the album?” And I said, “Yeah, come on down. If it don’t help me, it can’t hurt me none!”
And in about two days, he was down here and he went out to Holly Springs and rented one of them hunting clubs, and we did the album in about four hours. We must of drank about a gallon of somethin’, you know, he kept the club a couple of days, you know, but we did the album in four hours.
Did you and Junior Kimbrough ever play together?
Yeah, I’d go to his club. One time, we lived next side of his club. We played there a bunch of times. Some of my kids played bass or drums with him. Gary played with him, and Calvin Jackson. And my grandson, Cedric, who plays with me now, played with him.
How old were you when you started making a living playing the blues?
Well, I was about 40. But when I started making money, I was about 30. And I been doin’ it for a bunch of years.
Where were you playing?
In all the places I went, and overseas, people looked like they enjoyed it. And I went all around over there, you know. New Zealand, Australia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France, Italy. All around over there and they looked like they liked the music. A guy was takin’ us around, you know, and I heard them hollerin’ and I asked him how it was they liked the music when they can’t speak English. They liked the rhythm… man, they liked the rhythm!
Who are some of your favorite blues guitar players or singers?
Well, I like Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King.
I know you’ve played with Fred McDowell. Have you ever played with any of the other guys you mentioned?
Well, the first time I was on tour, that was in ’69, I never met Lightnin’ or John Lee. We was late – me and Robert Pete Williams – gettin’ to Montreal, and we had to catch the subway to go over there. And I got lost. They was callin’ me by my name when I got there, “R.L. Burnside from Coldwater, Mississippi…” And I was just goin’ up. I didn’t get a chance to go in the dressing room.
I just went up on the stage, you know, and I saw Robert Pete Williams sittin’ over there beside the stage. He done played, you know, and man I was nervous, cause ’bout a six-piece band just, like, got off the stage, and I was playing solo.
I got up and about halfway through one song, the people started hollerin’ and man that made me feel a whole lot better!
But I’m playin’ some Hooker stuff like “Boogie Chillen” and “When My First Wife Left Me.” I’m playin’ some stuff behind Lightnin’, too. After I got through, they was pattin’ their hands and I got down to talk to Robert Pete Williams, and he said “R.L. you done got better. You started gettin’ better all the time.” I said, “Yeah…” He said, “Yeah man, that’s good. But I tell you what – you gotta whuppin.” I said, “What you mean?” He said, “John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins in there, sittin’ in the dressin’ room.”
Man, I could’ve been bought for a penny (laughs)! We went on in, and Hooker said, “Man, I don’t mind nobody playin’ my music when they play it good. When they mess it up, I don’t like it. But you played it good” (laughs).
That made me feel better, man.
Your son, Duwayne, is playing guitar with the North Mississippi Allstars now. Did you teach him how to play?
Well, he just watchin’ me, you know, and when I first knowd he was playing, I’d be workin’ in the field, pickin’ cotton, and I’d come in the house and he’d have my guitar, you know (laughs). And he broke all them strings (laughs). I’d fix it up, and then one day I came in and he was playin’. I listened to him and I said, “Oh My,” and I went and got him a guitar. He wanted to do it bad, man.
He doesn’t sound anything like you. He sounds like Buddy Guy or Otis Rush – definitely urban. Now, Luther Dickinson (lead guitar and front man for the All-Stars), he sounds more like you. Did you show him anything on the guitar?
Well, he watch me a lot of times, you know, and learnt some off me. They’re doing some of my songs. When he started to playin’ ’em, he came to me and said, “Hey, Mr. R.L.! You don’t care if I do your numbers, do you?” I said, “No, it’s okay with me.”
You know, they do them numbers pretty good!
Like Mississippi Fred and Ranie Burnette before him, R.L. Burnside has turned schoolmaster, and his subject is hill-country blues. Although his health prohibits Professor Burnside from touring, his lesson plans are available. Check out the blues bin of your favorite record shop… and be prepared to get schooled by the headmaster.
Danelectro photo:David Raccuglia.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Dec. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.