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Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down

A lot of people don’t know about Bad Luck City cuz they’ve never been there, but I’ve been there and I know about it

—R.L. Burnside, “Bad Luck City”


When R.L. Burnside got out of the hospital following heart surgery in 2002, he didn’t go straight home. Eventually the owner of his record label found him at a casino in Tunica, Mississippi, and asked him what he was doing there. R.L. laughed and said, “Pushing my luck.”

R.L. Burnside died at a hospital in Memphis last Thursday, where he’d been admitted three weeks earlier. Burnside had suffered from heart problems for several years. His health had been declining, and he hadn’t performed since his unofficial retirement three years ago.

One of the few musically relevant blues players to emerge since the 1960s, Burnside’s style of playing — just a guitar or two and drums — was unpolished, repetitious to the point of hypnotic, and very loud.

Others from the Mississippi “hill country” region also played that sound, T-Model Ford and the late Junior Kimbrough among them. Unlike Delta blues, which absorbed the influences of New Orleans and St. Louis carried in from the Mississippi River, the hill-country sound was peculiarly unadorned and pure.

After gaining the attention of indie rockers such as Jon Spencer, Sonic Youth and Beck in the ’90s — and that of their young audiences — Burnside stayed away from the stagnant blues-fest scene, instead playing rock and punk clubs. His albums became a fixture on college radio, and electronica producers and hip-hop artists remixed his songs. But his live shows, when he didn’t cancel them to stay home or go fishing, remained as unembellished as the style he’d help develop in backcountry juke joints decades earlier. The best example of this is Burnside’s 2001 live album, Burnside on Burnside, recorded during a West Coast trek that ended up being one of his final tours. In between a dozen mesmerizing songs, Burnside cracked jokes, drank whiskey and boomingly delivered his signature phrase repeatedly: “WELL WELL WELL!”

On the afternoon before Burnside’s final Los Angeles concert, his record label set up a photo shoot for him. Ordinarily, Burnside had little patience for such things (including interviews, radio shows or autographs), but this one was a little different, as it was for Hustler magazine.

With a bottle of whiskey in his hand, Burnside sat grinning for the next two hours as two beautiful, stark-naked ladies sat on his knees, ran their fingers through his hair, and knelt beside him for roll after roll of film.

That night, backstage at the concert, Burnside was still laughing about the experience. He called his wife of more than 50 years, Alice Mae, and told her all about it. Then he took the stage with his guitarist and grandson Cedric Burnside on drums, and they played the songs that have been played in Holly Springs and Chulahoma, Mississippi, for years. And, just like in Mississippi, everybody danced.