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"Well, you know, I just 'preciate it," he notes, referring to finding some fame late in life. With a little prodding, he eventually adds, "I'm glad the Lord's willin' to let me do this. I was really hopin' to someday.... Now I got to where I don't have to be huntin' no job, so that's good, and I'm makin' pretty good little money, so that's all right."
There's a story that he killed a man in the late Fifties. Is it true?
"I just shot him," Burnside replies.
"He was messing with my woman."
"But the man...died."
"I guess so. That was between him and the Lord."
"But you shot him in the head."
"Weeelll, that's where the bullet landed."
"Did you do any time?"
"I went to Parchman for a little while."
Parchman Farm was an infamous Mississippi prison. "How long was 'a little while'?"
"Oh, two, three, uh, four, five years."
When Burnside's house burned down several years ago he built another on the same spot; now with a little money coming in, he says he's planning to build a new house next door. His professional perspective is similarly centered on the universe of his neighborhood; he has little interest in the history or theory of the blues, breezily dismissing the notion that his hill-country music is distinct from the sound of the nearby Mississippi Delta. Others have claimed that the hill country's snappy cadences are stamped by the fife-and-drum bands that were common in the nineteenth century and still perform there today.
"Them people out in the Delta just smoothed [the blues] up and took it to Chicago," he points out, "but it's all the same thing."
Still Burnside came up paying close attention to his neighbor, Mississippi Fred McDowell, a magnificent slide guitarist and singer who had little in common with the Delta maestros. Burnside jammed with the older man at country dances and rent parties. But when he wasn't playing with McDowell, Burnside was studying records by Delta-style players such as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. During a brief stay in Chicago in 1947, Burnside met Waters, his second cousin by marriage, and studied the slide king on legendary Maxwell Street. "I learned to play by watching him do it," Burnside explains.
On his first tour, at a 1969 blues festival in Montreal, Burnside played what he thought was an impressive set, replete with covers of Hooker and Lightnin' Hopkins. He was mortified, he confesses now, when he came off-stage and found Hopkins and Hooker in the dressing room. Still Burnside remains his own man, even more primitive than Hooker, who has been known to employ two or three chords to Burnside's typical one. The wonder is that the effect is anything but monotonous. Where many players rely on melody to link the parts of their songs together, Burnside uses subtle rhythmic shifts, and in this he's like a one-man James Brown Band. He makes rough music that repays close attention.
Burnside's influences peek through in flashes and are as likely to be automatic guns and drugs -- big-city evils that have now spread into the Delta and overlapped into the hills -- as they are McDowell or Hooker. Burnside posed for the cover of Too Bad Jim with his blue-eyed dog Buck, who was killed near the bluesman's home in what he calls "a drive-by shooting." His music is rural but not bucolic, country but not quiet. Robert Palmer claims it's like postrelativity physics, which tells us the universe is governed by laws so subtle that it merely seems chaotic.
Burnside is a little drier: "I guess it's just a gift."
After his recent Phoenix show, there was a line of female fans waiting to see Mr. Wizard up close. He'd performed that night with his grandson Cedric on drums, a handsome man, but the women in the club seemed to have eyes only for the old gentleman, the one who performed sitting down and sang "Fireman Ring the Bell" with leering authority. The ladies seemed to be saying, "A Miata's all right, but sometimes, you know, it's just so much flash. Now, that roomy old Ford over there -- that looks fine, even if it is up on blocks."
As the line snaked in front of Burnside, he was getting a lot of mileage out of "Weeelll, well, well." It's his universal incantation; apparently it means, among other things, Scotch whiskey, applause, and young women are all fine things -- please bring more. It probably means, too, that performing for a living and having fans after a lifetime picking cotton is one cool trick. You don't have to be a rascal to play the blues, but sometimes it helps.
David Holthouse in Phoenix contributed to this article.
R.L. Burnside performs with T-Model Ford at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, November 7, as part of the Blues Festival at Riverwalk. Call 954-462-0222 for more information.