An era in American music ended when legendary blues guitarist R.L. Burnside passed away in 2005. A fixture on the Mississippi Delta blues scene for decades, Burnside and his gritty, growling musical style was a living link to the black musicians who originated the Delta blues back in the 1920s and from whom he first learned how to play. In the early 1990s Burnside gained fame when he was "discovered" by new generation of blues aficionados and rock and rollers.
Beginning at Mississippi
Robert Lee Burnside was born November 23, 1926 in Oxford, Lafayette County, MS, in the hill country above the Delta. Burnside spent much of his life in the northern section of the state and made his home in Holly Springs. A triangular basin between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, the Delta was long an impoverished, rural place, with an economy dominated by an unfair system in which whites owned the land and black sharecroppers worked it for meager wages.
The blues was a musical style that emerged as a key element of African-American culture in the twentieth century, and was born in the 1920s out of the Delta's pervasive injustice and racism. "Working for the man, you couldn't say nothing but you could sing about it, ya know," Burnside told Ed Mabe in a 1999 interview that was published on the Web site Perfect Sound Forever, when asked about the starting point of the blues. "Couldn't tell him what he done wrong."
Burnside was himself a sharecropper in his earliest working years, and did not begin playing the guitar until the age of 16. He came under the influence of a neighbor, "Mississippi Fred" McDowell, who was one of the pioneers of the blues genre. He learned a lot from him, and the highly rhythmic style that Burnside plays is evident in McDowell's recordings as well.
Despite the otherworldly country-blues sounds put down by Burnside, his other influences were surprisingly contemporary: his cousin-in-law Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Lightnin' Hopkins. But Burnside's music is pure country Delta juke joint blues, heavily rhythm-oriented and usually played with a slide. His final inspiration to pick up the guitar he got in his early twenties, after hearing the 1948 John Lee Hooker single Boogie Chillen.
Chigago The Windy City
In the late 1940's, lured by the promise of well-paying factory jobs, Burnside headed north to Chicago, where his father had settled. He married Alice Mae Taylor in 1949, with whom he would have twelve children (some sources say 14). He found a thriving black musical subculture there, and often hung out with Muddy Waters, who would come to dominate the Chicago blues scene. Waters, who was one of the first blues men to use an electric guitar, married Burnside's cousin. Burnside dabbled in music when he lived in Chicago, but most of his time was devoted to a job in a foundry.
But things did not turn out as he had hoped. Within the span of one month his father, brother, and uncle were all murdered in the city, a tragedy that R.L. Burnside would later draw upon in his work, particularly in his version of Skip James' Hard Time Killing Floor and the talking blues R.L.'s Story, the opening and closing tracks on his album from year 2000 "Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down".
In around 1959 he fled the urban violence and headed back to Mississippi to become a farm worker and raise a large family. There he drove a farm tractor by day and at night traveled around to play guitar in the juke joints near his home in Holly Springs, the seat of Marshall County. He was also a purveyor of fine moonshine.
Back at Mississippi
R.L spent six months in the notorious Parchman Farm for killing a man in 1959, who attacked him after Burnside beat him in a dice game. The man owned him 400 dollars and was not willing to pay him. He spent such a short time inside because his farming skills for his powerful white employer were unique and too important worker. Of the murder, he later said in an Observer Music Magazine interview: "I didn't mean to kill nobody. I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head and two times in the chest. Him dying was between him and the Lord."
In 1960 Muddy Waters played the Newport Jazz Festival, which incited widespread interest in the blues across America and Europe. In 1967 folk lorists David Evans and George Mitchell came down to Mississippi to record Burnside and other obscure musicians who had learned from the original players back in the 1930s and 1940s. When Mitchell found Burnside, his electric guitar was broken, and so he recorded playing Mitchell's acoustic guitar. This caused him to be presented outside his community for many years as an old fashioned country blues artist and a solo performer. they made the first recordings of R.L. Burnside, and half an LP of his songs was issued on the Arhoolie label. this compilation record was simply titled Mississippi Delta Blues. They were powerful country blues, and they earned Burnside enough reputation and fame to be invited to play at the occasional folk festivals, and he even made a tour of Canada in 1969.
His drone-based style was a characteristic of North Mississippi hill country blues rather than Mississippi Delta blues. Like other country blues musicians, he did not always adhere to 12- or 16-bar blues patterns, often adding extra beats according to his preference. He called this "Burnside style" and often commented that his backing musicians needed to be familiar with his style in order to be able to play along with him.
His wife Alice would sing with him sometimes and By the late 1970's his sons Joseph and Daniel and their brother-in-law Calvin Jackson had formed the Sound Machine, whose main gig was backing up their father. Burnside recorded with them in the late 1970s, and they occasionally performed at blues festivals in Britain and West Germany. in the audience there were always a few aspiring guitarists watching R.L. and learning musical ideas, just as his own boys had done a few years before. Burnsides' white "apprentice" Kenny Brown would later join their band too.
Discovered at Old Age
Burnside remained mostly unknown, however, until New York Times music critic Robert Palmer came to Mississippi to make a documentary film with Dave Stewart of the Eurhythmics. The project grew out of Palmer's 1982 book, Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta. So Palmer interviewed Burnside in 1990, and In 1992 he was featured alongside his friend Junior Kimbrough (whose Holly Spings juke joint Burnside lives next to), in a documentary film, Deep Blues. It now that he began hitting full stride with tours and his music, thanks largely to the efforts of Fat Possum Records. His debut recording, Bad Luck City, was released that same year with the documentary movie on Fat Possum Records.
Next album, Too Bad Jim racked up terrific sales for Fat Possum, and made music critics say it was one of the most important blues records of the decade. Burnside's raw playing style, often built around a single guitar chord, and equally gritty vocals showcased the original style of the Mississippi Delta blues in all its unvarnished glory. Indie rocker Jon Spencer was a big fan of R.L, Spencer and bandmates Russell Simins and Judah Bauer traveled down to Mississippi to record with Burnside. The result was A Ass Pocket of Whiskey album, In his mid-sixties, this was RL's fifth album. It was produced by Spencer and released on the indie-rock label Matador in 1996. A review in the Austin American-Statesman by Michael Corcoran called it "a conspiracy of overamplified boogie and drunken epithets that ended up on many critics' top 10 lists for 1996."Burnside had been initially wary about collaborating with a group of post-punk New York City rockers, and was skeptical about the commercial viability. "When I first heard the final mix, I said to Jon, 'It ain't gonna sell nothin,'" Burnside told Obrecht in Guitar Player. "He said, 'Oh, you don't know, man!' Now it's outselling the rest of my albums."
Burnside had less success with 1998's Come on In, a studio remix of some of his best-known tracks, with samples and electronic rhythms dubbed in. One of its tracks, "It's Bad You Know," earned a spot in the hit HBO mob drama The Sopranos in a third-season episode and received substantial radio airplay.
As Burnside had been recording intermittently since the late '60s a spate of re-issues and live recorded albums began to appear in the 2000's. Chief among them were Mississippi Hill Country Blues, largely recorded in the Netherlands in the 1980's.
Sitting Down in Heaven
The year that Burnside turned 74, he released Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down (for Fat Possum Label). On a couple of its tracks he revisits the tragedies of the year in which so many of his family members died unnecessarily. Subsequent issues include Burnside on Burnside, a live recording, and A Bothered Mind, which includes a track, "My Name is Robert Too," co-written with another famous fan, Robert "Kid Rock" Ritchie. On his occasional tours, Burnside played to sold-out audiences, and his family's musical heritage stretched into a fourth generation when he brought along grandson Cedric as his drummer. His work was appreciated and he was the winner of W. C. Handy Blues Awards in 2000 and two in 2002.
In mid-2005, Burnside was hospitalized in Memphis, where one of his sons ran a blues club, and died on September 1, 2005. Burnside never fully recovered from the attack few years earlier. He was at the age of 79. "He never really wanted a career," said Johnson of the Fat Possum label in an interview with Spencer Leigh of London's Independent newspaper. "We just gave him one."
R.L. was the bread-earner for an enormous family -- his wife, twelve children, and multiple grandchildren -- all of whom lived under the same leaky roof in deep rural Mississippi. R.L. didn't perform to make a living, he performed to feed a family, and he wasn't losing any sleep over what music critics or traditionalists thought about the record.