R.L. Burnside: 1926 to 2005
R.L. Burnside demanded Canadian Mist and tomato juice before he performed, called the concoction a bloody muthafucka, and didn’t stop guzzling them until nearly the end. The end came September 1 at St. Francis Hospital, in Memphis Tennessee. No cause of death was given, but Burnside, who was 78, had suffered a heart attack in recent years, following more than a half-century of hard living.
Bellowing in graphic detail about wild women, evil bosses, or beating down some fool came naturally to the roughneck Mississippi native. Purists bulked at Burnside’s collaborations with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Kid Rock and Beck producer Tom Rothrock, but the hip-hop and punk generations — including R.L.’s drummer/grandson Cedric Burnside — understood. Listen to Too Bad Jim and then A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey, and it’s clear that whether he was playing acoustic guitar and singing about being mistreated, or barking threats across a cacophony of electric distortion, the old man sounded sincere.
Burnside grew up sharecropping in Marshall County, Mississippi. He learned the blues from his neighbor, the great Fred McDowell, and a 45 rpm of John Lee Hooker’s anthem “Boogie Chillun”. Burnside relocated to Chicago to find better work in the 1950s. There he spent time with his cousin-in-law Muddy Waters, but they only shared a day shift, never a stage. After his father, brother and uncle were murdered in one month, Burnside returned to Mississippi, where he farmed, fished and raised a family that would eventually include twelve children.
He played his music at night and on the weekends, blasting audiences with a brand of electrified, slide-guitar-driven blues that goes beyond the brain, burrows down in the pelvic region and makes one ignorant of the day of hard labor that lies ahead. If people are getting off on that one chord, why abandon it? That was the classic boogie music philosophy Burnside preached.
Burnside’s reputation spread across the state, and in the 1960s he started to record for small labels such as Arhoolie. During the 1970s and 1980s he found himself performing package tours in Europe. Back in the States, though, he remained virtually unknown outside of Northern Mississippi, until a lanky young white man named Matthew Johnson came representing a tiny record label he had founded called Fat Possum. By the time Burnside agreed to sign in 1991, the bluesman was old enough to add social security to his monthly welfare checks.
The first couple of Fat Possum albums Burnside made were straightforward Northern Mississippi blues that endeared him to aficionados on both sides of the Atlantic. Then he teamed with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and cut the loud, crude and hilarious A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey during one five-hour session. The album, which features a lewd illustration of a menacing Burnside flanked by two sexy white women on the cover, came out in 1996. It pissed off some purists, but it also made Burnside a cult hero and created a portal to traditional blues for youths raised on Social Distortion and N.W.A.
Burnside caused a fuss two years later with the release of Come On In, a collection of his cuts fitted with beats programmed by Tom Rothrock. The track “Let My Baby Ride” even garnered play on MTV — not bad for a 73-year old.
“Burnside was incorruptible,” Johnson said from Fat Possum headquarters in Oxford, Mississippi. “Because he never gave a shit about his career.”