You’ve seen this story hundreds of times regarding old Mississippi blues artists: work as a sharecropper, drink a little, spend some time in jail (most times, Parchman Farms), have lots of kids, drink a little more, play a guitar in the few free moments you have, play in juke joints across the Delta, drink a lot more (it’s free, and most times, it’s your payment), entertain crowds with songs and stories, go home, have a nightcap, then get up and do it all over again.
Some of the above applied to one Robert Lee Burnside, better known as R.L. (and Rule to friends and family), but his life was sometimes as atypical as his music. Burnside did work as a sharecropper, he spent six months of a two-year jail sentence in Parchman (he was released because his boss was friends with the judge, and he was needed for cotton-picking season—he was one of the farm’s best workers). By blues standards, his 13 kids were a low amount (one died over two decades ago in an auto accident). He did practice and learn to play the guitar, and had a hell of a teacher in Mississippi Fred McDowell (as well as Ranie Burnette). Of course, he played in juke joints (mostly friend and labelmate Junior Kimbrough’s joint—that is, until someone burned it down in 2000).
Burnside, who died in a Memphis hospital room when the calendar switched over to September, did want and have some stability in his life, making him unlike most blues musicians in that time and place. He was married to the same woman for over 50 years (Alice Mae). He boasted that only the oldest two of his five sons ever had to pick cotton. Burnside also had a second job as a commercial fisherman (catfish, anyone?). And with all that, he learned to play the guitar.
Born on 21 November 1926, Burnside was nearly approaching his 79th birthday. But over the last four years, his body slowly gave up on him. He had heart surgery in 2003, eliminating any possibility of ever touring again. Prior to that, he had a problem with his ears. He had a plug put in his ear for relief, and the plug simply disintegrated a few days later.
Burnside didn’t play the guitar in earnest until he was 58 years old, and caught a break when “neighbor” (in Mississippi, neighbors can be 20 miles apart) and friend, the late Othar Turner, directed field music researcher George Mitchell to Burnside as someone with talent. Burnside’s subsequent tapes wound up on Arhoolie as part of a Mississippi Blues collection.
R.L.‘s musical career caught an upturn in 1991 when the late ethnomusicologist and blues lover Robert Palmer found him and featured him (along with Kimbrough and other Mississippi lesser-known blues artists) in his movie Deep Blues. Shortly thereafter, Palmer agreed to produce Burnside’s (and effectively, the Fat Possum label’s) first release, titled Too Bad Jim. The title was a reference to R.L.‘s dog named Jim, and pictured on the album cover. But like a lot of things in Burnside’s life, tragedy was soon to follow; someone shot the dog dead.
TBJ did pretty well in the blues market, but then Burnside turned himself around, as he hooked up with punk rock specialists Jon Spencer and the Blues Explosion. Spencer and his band shot down to Mississippi, and in one day, recorded the tracks for what would be Burnside’s second proper release, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. Mixing blues with punk worked in this case, as R.L.‘s playing was solid, and was able to mix in with the heavier guitars and faster beats. (The version of “Goin’ Down South” is such a stomper, it could be used as mosh pit material.) So far, Burnside hadn’t really pissed anyone off at that point, since even blues purists will concede that mixed in with rock—or even punk—the music can fit without being bastardized.
But A Ass Pocket of Whiskey was just a warm up for what was about to happen. After releasing another North Mississippi Hill Country style album (Mr. Wizard), Burnside not only stretched, but broke down some major barriers with his fourth Fat Possum release.
Full disclosure: I am err, was a friend of Burnside. I visited him in his Mississippi home. I drank moonshine with him. I learned a guitar chord or two from him. I received fishing tips from him. I had my first Bloody Mary Motherfucker (it’s a Bloody Mary with bourbon added) with him. I spent one Sunday night at Junior’s joint with him playing and me dancing like a fool (which anyone would do when they’re on a moonshine bender). I swapped stories of life with him on what was his porch. So as you can see, I’m somewhat biased here. But that’s okay—I’m writing this as part of my personal grieving process.
You see, it was R.L. Burnside that got me into music writing a little over seven years ago. I was interested in the blues, and I had read somewhere that this record was coming out that would shake the staid concept of the blues to its very core—and it sure did. When Come on In was released, I was totally blown away. And for R.L., mission accomplished (with the help of producer Tom Rothrock). With the encouragement of Fat Possum founder Matthew Johnson, Burnside laid down some basic chords, along with grandson Cedric Burnside on drums, and “adopted son” Kenny Brown on slide guitar. Rothrock took those tapes and remixed them to the point where it became electronica/hip-hop. Now THAT had never been done to a blues record before—at least that blatantly.
This time, the purists were pissed. Johnson was getting death threats, and his reaction was to laugh. As for Burnside’s reaction: “The first time I heard it, I didn’t really like it too much. But when I saw people buyin’ it and I was makin’ a whole lot of money, I liked it a lot better!”
Come on In marked a turning point in Burnside’s career. One song, “It’s Bad You Know”, became a part of The Sopranos’ first season soundtrack. Major TV networks use snippets of “Let My Baby Ride” as bumper music to get into and out of commercials when sporting events are televised. Hell, Aerosmith came out to “Baby” every night on their last tour.
And all that recognition didn’t change Burnside one iota, except to give him some more cash to live on. It was rare when R.L. wasn’t smiling, laughing, or telling a story/joke. One of his best lines ever (which has several variations), was his explanation to the judge when he served a six-month stint in jail for killing a man who was threatening him and his family: “I didn’t mean to kill him,” he said. “I just shot him in the head. His dying was between him and his God.”
Two more albums of revamped Burnside came out afterwards. One was the abortion of Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down, an album where the basic tracks were sent to Fat Possum’s distributor at the time, Epitaph Records. The powers that be decided to revamp everything except Burnside’s vocals, and as they did so, they buried anything resembling the blues. Only the title song was untouched—guess which song is the only decent one on the album? The second album, Burnside’s last, is A Bothered Mind, but this time, the mixing into hip-hop didn’t obliterate any of the blues. In fact, the hip-hop became a welcome adjunct. The album also marked Johnson’s desire to use the Detroit scene to achieve that sound—even Kid Rock did guest vocals on one track (“My Name Is Robert Too”).
Look at the back cover of Come on In - you’ll see Burnside standing in his kitchen, guitar in hand. Note the refrigerator behind him—it’s padlocked and chained to the wall. With Burnside’s celebrity, his family were the ones who reaped the most of his success. Food was stolen, so Burnside had two refrigerators—one for he and his wife, the other for everyone else. He had a string of four houses of his burn to the ground; each time, he and his family were lucky that nobody got hurt. I can hazard a guess as to why the fourth one went up in flames, since I’d visited there: the wiring in the house was an accident waiting to happen. Finally, Burnside bought a brand new trailer with his monies. It was one of the few expenditures R.L. got for himself. He was happy just to be able to support his family without having to do any manual labor.
But just when things hit their peak in 2002, R.L.‘s health decided to start to bottom out. First, it was an inner ear infection that nobody could definitively diagnose. That limited his traveling. Then came the heart attack in 2003 that ended his touring. Burnside, like many old-time bluesmen in the area, loved his beverages, and now he had to quit cold turkey. He told me in 2002 when he was nearing 76 that he wanted to make a couple more albums, then retire for good . He said he just wanted to go to a fishing hole with a pole and a few beers. It probably would have been nice for him to catch a few catfish for the fun of it, rather than as his livelihood.
Burnside recovered from the heart attack and subsequent bypass surgery, but his health never got back to normal, and he spent his last two years slowly on a downward slippery slope. He died in a Memphis hospital, and no actual cause was given for his death.
Burnside’s death leaves just (James) T-Model Ford as the last old man standing at Fat Possum. Kimbrough, who died in 1998, was perfectly content to stay at home and play, though he did open for Iggy Pop on one tour. Burnside loved to get off his ass and go out and play anywhere that the people would have him. Fans would flock to him to say hello, shake his hand, and/or get an autograph. Like the others, Burnside never learned to read or write, though he did learn how to sign his name.
Articles about Burnside’s death have appeared in newspapers throughout Europe and Asia, as well as North America. That’s how much he was loved and/or respected as a musician and a person. There is no more fitting tribute than to hoist a beverage (preferably, a bloody motherfucker) in honor of a man who allowed his blues to be twisted for the greater good of both the genre and himself. The loss of R.L. Burnside was more than a loss of a North Mississippi blues legend—it was the loss of a joyful, friendly, and (literally) care-free human being who didn’t give a shit what others thought of him. Burnside lived his life the way he chose, and that’s the best legacy anyone can have.
If anyone cares to contribute something towards honoring the life of R.L. Burnside, please send checks to help out his wife, Alice Mae. A fund has been set up specifically for that purpose. Here’s the info:
Send donations to: Freeland and Freeland Trust Account, Burnside Memorial, P.O. Box 269, Oxford, MS 38655. Phone number: 662/234-3414. You can also get this information on the Fat Possum website.