By Ashley Zimmerman
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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.
"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.