By Charles Russo
It has come to pass as a particular sort of historical irony – both poignant and peculiar – that one of the last great southern bluesmen died on the same day that Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf States. R.L. Burnside passed away at the age of 78 in a Memphis hospitable bed, just one of many chapters that came to a close on the morning of September 1st.
More so than even the geographic relevance, blues music was born of the same dire circumstances that had been broadcast 24/7 amidst Katrina’s aftermath: poverty, despair, displacement, and of course – racism. It is curiously symbolic then, that R.L. died just as the blues would wash over the Deep South.
For anyone who knew his albums or had seen him play, R.L. Burnside was the real deal. This has been said before, often and in many ways, but I don’t see any other angle around it: a root definition for a roots bluesman.
Burnside got us back to the source. His hard-driving Northern Mississippi sound steered us clear of the Planet Hollywood-style “Blues Houses”, and put us back onto muddy roads leading to sweaty southern jukejoints where the only thing that’s polished is the chrome on the bartender’s .44. His music was gritty, stark, and savagely soulful; a stirring resonance from the nerve center of a deep-seated American music tradition.
Today, when this blend of gut-wrenching soul-soothing blues is the most needed, we lost one of the last men qualified to deliver it. Indeed, Burnside’s death not only signifies the closing to the 11th hour revival of the Mississippi Hill Country bluesmen, but in many ways to the Golden Age of blues music itself. Say what you like about which 20th century masters are still among us, R.L. was the last of the roots to remain relevant.
Over the course of his career Burnside not only shared a stage with the legendary Lightin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, but also with the Beastie Boys and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. His catalogue ranges from a sensational session of solo acoustic blues recorded in his living room circa ’68, to the beat-heavy remix “Shuck Dub” which had scored the uneasy ending to an episode of the Sopranos three decades later.
Burnside then, was the view from the crossroads; blues music’s past and path ahead, as well as the payoff from its dirty midnight dealings with the devil.
I first got to see R.L. perform live at the Blues and Roots Festival in Byron Bay, Australia, just as he was reaching the height of his newly found popularity. Although he was over 70 at the time, Burnside was quick in proving that he was not some relic propped up on stage to represent a musical heyday gone by.
Sharing a bill with an impressive list of blues offspring and interpreters, including Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, David Lindley, Ben Harper, and the John Spencer Blues Explosion, R.L. and company took to the stage like they were out for blood. Hearing them tear through “Shake ‘Em on Down”, it was clear that Burnside was coming at us straight from the source.
Backed by the hard-hitting drumming of his grandson Cedric and the searing slide guitar of his “adopted son” Kenny Brown, the trio lay into the Northern Missississippi blend: a repetitive and hypnotic sound that subtly deviates into chaotic flourishes and beat-you-back guitar solos. On top of it all was R.L.’s dynamic voice; so fluid on those earlier recordings and now just wholly fierce in his later years.
Complementing the sound was Burnside’s unique stage presence, derived from decades of performing and employed as the jab in the 1-2 of his live show. Sitting in a flannel shirt, overalls, and truckers hat, R.L. sipped on a “Bloody Motherfucker” (tomato juice and whiskey) while tossing old grandad humor at the audience between each song (“For now on I ain’t drinking unless I’m alone”…long hit of his drink…”or with somebody”). After a few more swigs, R.L. set in on the ferocious riff of “Goin’ Down South.”
Oddly enough, Burnside’s spectacular set was followed by the weak link in the event’s lineup, a trumped-up bar band playing formulaic Rock-Me-Baby-Rock-Me ponytail blues. The crowd now seemed perplexed, and rightfully so – Kenny G had just taken the stage after John Coltrane.
Burnside came of age as a guitarist in the 1940’s playing drunken weekend house parties until the early morning hours with his much-accomplished neighbor – the famous ‘Mississippi’ Fred McDowell.
While in his 20’s, R.L. was one of many Mississippi natives that migrated north in hopes of economic opportunity in Chicago, where at the same time blues music was making the transition from an acoustic country sound to the rollin’ and tumblin’ electric stomp of the city streets. There, Burnside frequented local blues joints where he had a front row seat to watch his cousin-in-law Muddy Waters put his mark on the future of American music.
And yet as the blues was evolving and legends were being made, Chicago dealt Burnside a heavy dose of death as his father and two brothers were murdered within the short period of only 8 months (two uncles met a similar fate shortly thereafter).
Returning back to his home state of Mississippi, Burnside encountered more killing, though this time on the other end of the gun. R.L. was convicted of murder after shooting a man dead during a gambling dispute, and subsequently spent 6 months in Parchman Prison. Listening to the inflection of R.L.’s voice as he sings the lyrics “If it weren’t for bad luck/I’d have no luck at all,” you get the sense that he means it as more than just a catchy phrase.
Burnside’s you-can’t-make-this-kind-of-shit-up biography came to be part of his appeal when his sound finally caught on beyond the Mississippi State lines about ten years back. This was not just for the novelty factor but for its refreshing realism in an industry were musicians show off their multi-million dollar homes on television and then return to the studio to sing about angst and adversity.
In contrast, Burnside lived in a ramshackle house that was swarming with grandkids and beset by old cars and farm equipment rusting on the front lawn, all the while boasting a relentless sense of humor.
In commenting on the circumstances of his murder charge for the documentary You See Me Laughin’, Burnside reflected on the matter with the timing and delivery of a stand-up comic: “When the judge asked me, ‘R.L., did you shoot him in self-defense?’ I said ‘No sir, I shot him in the leg as he jumped da fence.'”
Burnside’s story of reaching a younger audience in the mid-90’s hinges on the precarious saga of the Fat Possum record label; a fleabitten mongrel of an underdog tale that ultimately reads as an exquisite comedy of errors.
Enamored by the energy and authenticity of the local bluesmen whom he watched perform at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint in Holly Springs, Mississippi, 21 year-old
Matthew Johnson took his life to the pawn shop in a haphazard attempt at making a business of getting the likes of Burnside, Kimbrough, T-Model Ford, and Paul ‘Wine’ Jones down on tape.
Unsurprisingly, the matchup of a hapless white hustler in his early 20’s trying to manage a bunch of stubborn black tractor drivers crashing headlong into their twilight years was about as smooth as cheap whiskey on an empty stomach. High on Johnson’s list of hurdles was the unusual dilemma of effectively recording the talent before old age got the best of them.
Burnside proved to be the label’s most successful artist, particularly after Fat Possum lured the attention of a younger audience in 1996 with the release of A Ass Pocket Full of Whiskey, which had paired R.L. with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in a single raucous 5-hour session.
Critics and blues purists alike were quick to denounce the album, charging Spencer and Johnson of not only “corrupting” Burnside, but the blues itself. Thankfully, the raw appeal of the music outlasted the criticism and R.L gained considerable recognition on a series of worthwhile follow-ups, such as the stripped down electric voodoo of Mr. Wizard and the experimental (and equally controversial) collection of remixes – Come on In.
As Fat Possum continued to scrap its way to a well-deserved notoriety, R.L. received a Grammy nomination for his stunning live album Burnside on Burnside. Although it was a long overdue acknowledgement for an accomplished musician that didn’t gain recognition until the last decade of his life, Burnside reportedly responded to the accolade by inquiring, “How much do they pay?”
The last time I saw R.L. perform was at the sold-out Great American Music Hall in San Francisco for one of the two shows that would end up comprising Burnside on Burnside. Playing to an eclectic crowd that ran the gamut from young hipsters to aging blues fanatics, R.L. built the performance up to a fever pitch, turning out potent versions of his standards and ending with the rowdy stomp of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.”
Leaving the theater I felt as if I had just caught last call on the 20th century blues tradtion. A few months earlier I had watched in disappointment as a feeble John Lee Hooker struggled through the shortest of sets; clear evidence that the glory days of his music were now to be had solely through his recordings. Conversely, Burnside’s enthralling performance in that packed theater in San Francisco was an increasingly rare glimpse into the very nerve center of the blues tradition.
Looking ahead, the debate over the quality and legitimacy of the current manifestations of the blues in the 21st century is likely to remain as sticky as the Delta air in mid-July. If one thing can be agreed upon, it is that the old guard – these “real deal” musicians who contributed first-hand to the formation of the blues genre – are all but gone; legends for us to relate to subsequent generations.
Still, there appears to be the possibility of a music renaissance emerging from the destruction of the Gulf States. While many of the factors that had formed the blues – sharecropping, the Great Migration, Jim Crow – were unique historical circumstances that are not going to recreate themselves, there are startling modern similarities lingering amidst the ruins of New Orleans and the neighboring regions; areas that have been known to sprout enduring music customs from the dense muck of American social reality.
As Mark Twain had said, “History does not repeat itself – at best it sometimes rhymes.” We can only hope so.