Blues purists may be loath to admit it, but there‘s no denying that R.L. Burnside’s hybrid of raw blues and electronics has made him a crossover success in the indie-rock world. His latest release, Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down (Fat PossumEpitaph), recently nominated for the prestigious W.C. Handy blues album of the year, has been lauded by everyone from Rolling Stone to NPR as his best work to date.
Growing up in Mississippi hill country in the late ‘20s, Burnside was a plantation worker who had almost nothing to his name. Nothing, that is, but the music of legends such as Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins, who played the juke joints that once dotted the Delta. Inspired, Burnside wanted in. After an unsuccessful attempt at the harmonica, he turned to the guitar.
“I never did have one lesson,” he explains via phone — from his front porch, he tells me — in Holly Springs, Mississippi. “I just watched them old boys play and learnt it thataway.” Playing at fish fries and house parties, Burnside developed the timing, vocal gradations and subtle variations that many who study the blues outside the Delta struggle to replicate. Though he played for nearly two decades to a growing fan base, Burnside was still a name unknown outside the state line. His music wasn‘t recorded until 1967, when he was featured on the Arhoolie anthology Mississippi Delta Blues, Vol. 2. At the time of the recording, Burnside’s electric guitar was broken, so he made do with a ratty acoustic.
“Either way, it was a good thing, ‘cause it got us known,” says Burnside. “After that I got to play at the festivals, and then more and more folk started showin’ up to see. And that‘s all I ever really want, is to learn people about the music and spread it ’round.”
It wasn‘t long before Fat Possum founder Matt Johnson came knocking. Fat Possum, purveyors of “the only blues that matters,” brought little-known artists T Model Ford, Junior Kimbrough and Super Chikan to the forefront. Burnside’s first Fat Possum CD, Too Bad Jim, caught the attention of a small yet influential group of listeners, including Jon Spencer, front man of New York City noisemongers the Blues Explosion. Burnside opened a handful of shows for the Blues Explosion, with his sit-down simplicity nearly stealing the spotlight from Spencer‘s alpha-male antics.
Spencer was impressed enough to hound Burnside to collaborate on an album, and the result was A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, a collection of Burnside telling what he refers to as “them old dirty stories” to a backdrop of Spencer’s exuberant wailings. This alcohol-fueled slap at the traditional crossroads-style blues, recorded in just four hours in a rented hunting lodge just outside Holly Springs, sold and sold well.
“I was real nervous to hear that one come out of the speakers,” recalls Burnside. “But I liked it, and other folks did too. I don‘t think folks like Lightnin’ woulda liked it, but I‘m the one earnin’ a living here,” he laughs.
Still, Burnside was a name known only in uber-hip circles, until 1998‘s release of Come On In, produced by Beck’s Tim Rothrock and distributed by Epitaph. The remixed, sample- and loop-heavy recording was his biggest commercial hit, and spawned “It‘s Bad You Know,” featured on The Sopranos’ soundtrack. Often criticized as more electronic wizardry than blues artistry, the album had traditional blues fans paling at what many believed was to have represented the last of the gruff, gravelly-voiced hills bluesmen.
Though Burnside doesn‘t say so directly, he may well be of the same school of thought. “My only request with Wish is that the turntables and other stuff didn’t drown me out,” he says, “and they got it, easy.”
The compilation features not only Burnside‘s classic spoken-word storytelling, but also blends Tom Waits guitarist Smokey Hormel with the turntables of DJ Pete B and DJ Swamp in a cocktail of traditional and genre-bending sounds. Musically and lyrically, it runs the gamut, from the somber telling of the murder of Burnside’s father and brothers in Chicago on “Bad Luck City” to the jubilant, mandolin-infused sound of “My Eyes Keep Me in Trouble.”
With Wish, purists and progressives alike should find something to appreciate in the aural weightiness of Burnside‘s latest, but hopefully not last, recording.
“I’m not ready to quit just yet,” Burnside says, pausing to take a pull of beer. “I‘m going to keep on playing the blues, if the Lord spares me.”
R.L. Burnside performs at House of Blues on Friday, January 26.