By David Rolland
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It's a good bet that in the last few months R.L. Burnside has become the world's most popular septuagenarian punk rocker. Burnside, a 70-year-old North Mississippian who plays slash-and-drone guitar and sings like a satisfied frog, is suddenly a growing sensation on the college-radio circuit. Technically, he isn't a punk rocker; in fact, for most of his relatively brief career, Burnside and his music have been hailed by critics as a missing link in traditional blues. But when you consider the get-happy crap that so often passes for blues lately -- and then measure it against Burnside's raw recordings -- he clearly has more in common with vintage Black Flag than with the last twenty bands that attempted to assay "Sweet Home Chicago."
Burnside's belated success may be an altrock marketing coup, but it isn't entirely a fluke. The title of his most recent album, this past spring's Mr. Wizard (on Oxford, Mississippi-based Fat Possum Records), was fitting: His punky blues are often both refined and crude, not to mention lovesick, menacing, and quicker to pierce your soul than an army of needles. This strange brew appeals to young fans, guesses the owner of Fat Possum Records, 29-year-old Matthew Johnson, because "it rocks. It's the same thing that attracted the Stones to Muddy Waters."
A singer, songwriter, and bottleneck-slide guitarist, Burnside was reared and has spent most of his life in a pocket of Mississippi's hill country. He worked as a sharecropper and a fisherman, playing music on the weekends at juke joints such as the one owned by his neighbor, bluesman Junior Kimbrough, near Burnside's home outside Holly Springs. Although he's sporadically recorded since the late Sixties, Burnside didn't have much of an audience until his inclusion on music writer Robert Palmer's 1992 anthology Deep Blues (Atlantic).
Burnside's two Deep Blues cuts burnished his mystique as a man who may be in touch with life's darker forces, a tried-and-true calling card for rural bluesmen. Palmer subsequently produced two Burnside albums
for Fat Possum; in the liner notes for the second, 1994's stunning Too Bad Jim, he writes of the time Burnside happened to drift past an open microphone at a recording session, muttering, "The Devil, that's who I've been serving." The scary thing, Palmer adds, "is that R.L. thought nobody was listening."
His first Fat Possum album Bad Luck City, primarily a collection of covers, underwhelmed the market when it came out in 1991; by Johnson's count, it sold 713 copies. Glowing notices and a new distribution deal helped push his next release, Too Bad Jim, into four-digit sales figures, but just barely. And then a strange thing happened. New York City noise rockers the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion took a shine to Burnside and cut an album with him last year, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, as a joint release for Fat Possum and the altrock label Matador (Pavement, Liz Phair, Yo La Tengo). It sold more than 40,000 copies -- roughly the sales of Fat Possum's complete catalog up to that time -- and Burnside's stock began to climb. By the time Wizard came out earlier this year (on Fat Possum/Epitaph, the latter label better known for L.A. punk bands such as Rancid, Pennywise and NOFX), Burnside was a burgeoning cult sensation.
His shows on the road the last several years had been sparsely attended by diehard blues fans, but this fall Burnside has been alternating crowded blues gigs with successful stands at hip underground clubs such as L.A.'s Spaceland and San Diego's Casbah, and a packed gig at New York's neohippie headquarters, Wetlands; meanwhile, Wizard's sales have nearly equaled those of Ass Pocket. Two years ago when Burnside played Phoenix's main blues venue, the Rhythm Room, his little band made up a big part of the house; when he played there again several weeks ago, it was wall-to-wall with the young and curious. What changed?
Not Burnside. In Phoenix he delivered the same short, tight set he usually does, a series of songs as modulated as machine-gun spray -- no warm-up, just propulsive middles and abrupt ends. His trio -- Burnside plus another guitarist and a drummer -- played with the abandon of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Burnside linked the songs with awkward patter: "Weeelll, weeelll, well," he said again and again to acknowledge the applause. "I can't believe this." At one point he ventured a joke about a boy with a stutter who deduces his lineage from the mailman's similar impediment. It was purely unreconstructed, just like his music. Periodically nipping at a Scotch and Coke, flouting the state's law against drinking on-stage, he punctuated his sips with "Weeelll, well."
Reached at home on a recent Saturday evening, Burnside was just back from touring and in the midst of a raucous family fish fry; he has twelve children, some of whom back up their dad on occasion, and it sounded as though most of them and their friends and children were on hand. The blues singer is notoriously laconic in interviews -- partly, one suspects, because, while he is polite, it doesn't make much sense to him to chat with strangers on the telephone.