R. L. Burnside Biography
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. One of them, Judah Bauer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, told Guitar Player's Jas Obrecht that Burnside was "devoted to the blues…. Hanging out with him, you really feel he's from another time and place. The past in him is big—he's a direct connection to it—and you hear it in his storytelling and phrases."
Born Robert Lee Burnside in 1926 in Lafayette County, Mississippi, Burnside spent much of his life in the northern section of the state, just outside of the unofficial borders of the region known as the Delta. 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. (The Rolling Stones paid tribute to McDowell with a cover of his "You Gotta Move" on their 1971 LP, Sticky Fingers.) In the 1940s, lured by the promise of well-paying factory jobs, Burnside headed north to Chicago, where his father had settled. He found a thriving black musical subculture there, and often hung out with Muddy Waters, another Mississippi transplant who would come to dominate the Chicago blues scene. Waters, a legendary guitarist who was one of the first blues musicians 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. He married Alice Mae Taylor in 1949, with whom he would have twelve children. Life in Chicago changed, however, when in the space of one year, Burnside's father, uncle, and two brothers were slain; his brothers were murdered on the same day in unrelated incidents. He fled the urban violence and headed back to Mississippi, where 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.
In 1960 Muddy Waters played the Newport Jazz Festival, which incited widespread interest in the blues across America and Europe. Some years later, a folklorist came down to Mississippi to record Burnside and other obscure musicians who had learned from the original players back in the 1930s and 1940s. Burnside was included in this compilation record, simply titled Mississippi Delta Blues, which was issued on the Arhoolie label in 1967. He was invited to play at the occasional folk festival, and even made a tour of Canada in 1969. A few of Burnside's sons eventually followed him into a musical career and formed an act called Sound Machine. Burnside recorded with them in the late 1970s, and they occasionally performed at blues festivals in Britain and West Germany.
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. Palmer interviewed Burnside in 1990, and the guitarist was featured in the film version of Deep Blues released the following year. Palmer also recommended Burnside to Matthew Johnson, whose Fat Possum Records out of Oxford, Mississippi, had recently been launched. Palmer wound up producing Burnside's first solo LP, Bad Luck City, also released in 1991. This was followed three years later by Too Bad Jim, which music critics deem 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.
Too Bad Jim racked up terrific sales for Fat Possum, and one of its fans was Jon Spencer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. He invited Burnside and his sons' act, Sound Machine, to open for them on tour, and then Spencer and bandmates Russell Simins and Judah Bauer traveled down to Mississippi to record with Burnside. The result was A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, 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.
The year that Burnside turned 74, he released Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down on Fat Possum. 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. In mid-2005, Burnside was hospitalized in Memphis, where one of his sons ran a blues club, and died on September 1, 2005. "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."
Bad Luck City, Fat Possum, 1991.
Deep Blues (soundtrack), Atlantic, 1992.
Too Bad Jim, Fat Possum, 1994.
A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, Matador, 1996.
Mr. Wizard, Fat Possum, 1997.
Come on In, Epitaph, 1998.
Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down, Fat Possum, 2000.
Well Well Well, M.C., 2001.
Burnside on Burnside (live), Fat Possum, 2001.
A Bothered Mind, Fat Possum, 2004.
Austin American-Statesman (TX), November 30, 2000, p. 6.
Daily Variety, September 2, 2005, p. 13.
Entertainment Weekly, September 16, 2005, p. 89.
Guitar Player, December 1996, p. 79.
Independent (London, England), September 3, 2005, p. 47.
New York Times, September 2, 2005.
Rolling Stone, September 22, 2005, p. 16.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 19, 2001, p. 9.
Mabe, Ed, "R.L. Burnside: One Bad-Ass Bluesman," Perfect Sound Forever, www.furious.com/perfect/rlburnside.html (November 6, 2005).
"R.L. Burnside," Fat Possum Records, www.fatpossum.com/artists/rl.html (February 15, 2006).