If you don’t know about R.L. Burnside, you need to know about R.L. Burnside. He is B-A-D. And then there’s his music. Sincere Mississippi Delta blues at it deepest, darkest. He lives the blues, sings the blues, plays the blues that many outside Mississippi had thought disappeared. Robert Mugge’s brilliant 1992 documentary film Deep Blues (which was based on the even more brilliant 1981 book of the same name by Robert Palmer—no, not love addict Robert Palmer) showed that it hadn’t, with a slew of aged talent—the late Junior Kimbrough, Othar Turner, and R.L. to name a few—still going strong. A record label, Fat Possum records, was founded in Oxford, Mississippi to record these living treasures before they themselves disappeared (Junior and Othar since have), a task begun with the help of the late Mr. Palmer. Recently, Jay McInerary wrote a wonderful piece for the New Yorker about the origins of Fat Possum and their roster, focusing much of the spotlight on the stark life and mesmerizing talent of the 76-year-old former sharecropper, R.L. Burnside.
Since being “discovered” by Arhoolie records in 1967, R.L. has put out numerous albums, both acoustic and electric, many of them extraordinary. However, it was his collaboration with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on the raw ‘96 release A Ass Pocket of Whiskey that opened the crossover floodgates. Spencer threw his wild voice and wilder guitar behind Burnside’s gravelly force and the result was sheer power. A power many blues purists found revolting. However, it put Burnside on the alt.rock map, and soon he was touring throughout the country and abroad. Despite subsequent fame and semi-fortune, he’s managed to “keep it real”, still living with his family in the same house in the same town he’s been calling home for years.
Fat Possum’s latest R.L. release, First Recordings should please blues purists, enthusiasts and rookies alike, as it is easily one of the best blues releases of the year. It is part of the George Mitchell recordings, of which the transcendent gem by Fred McDowell and Johnny Woods,Mama Says I’m Crazy was gifted to us last year. Mitchell is a folklorist and sound engineer who worked for Arhoolie at the time, and Fat Possum has begun releasing a number of his engineered gems. The engineering wasn’t extravagant, namely a portable $168 recorder, a shack and a lot of cheap rum. All during the ripe musical year of 1968, the same time the Chess boys and Muddy Waters were trying to get their crossover mojo working via the heavily amped, Electric Mud. Here, Burnside easily matches that album’s power (yes, I know many blues folk hate it) with much simpler tools: his dynamic voice, footstomp and acoustic guitar. In fact, if nothing else, this album’s treasure is that it illustrates the surprising range of a voice unmarked by the last 35 years of Northern Mississippi living.
There is no stinker on this album; they are all highlights. Hence, one could take any song as a point of departure. The opener, “Just Like a Bird without a Feather” is a slow, haunting tune that starts out as if R.L. is singing to his lover: “Just like a bird without a feather / You know I’m lost without your love / You know I need your love / Just like the angels need heaven above”. Eerily the image of angels and heaven ring true, as the song slips quickly into the past tense and we learn that he misses his lover because he has murdered her for “cheatin’”, and now after sentencing, “home ain’t where it used to be”. From jail, we move to the train track. “Goin’ Down South”, a quick-tempo number about getting the hell out of the North and going back home could be inspired by Burnside’s Chicago stint in the 1950s, where his father, brother, and uncle were all murdered within a month’s time. The song has the rumblings of a locomotive, features Burnside’s chugging guitar work and a voice that is reminiscent of Blind Willie Johnson’s infamous growl. Later, Burnside demonstrates his considerable slide playing skills on “Walkin’ Blues”, which, indeed, has the pace of steady, forlorn walk. You can hear Elmore James, Freddie King, and his mentor, Mississippi Fred McDowell all in one package.
The rest of the songs, well, sure I could babble about them but it wouldn’t matter. They’re all about broken hearts, killing folk, drinkin’, jail, women, cryin’ and death. You know, the usual. Simply pick up the album. It will build your character and make you feel, in comparison, dang good. And if you snag it off of Fat Possum’s website, you can return it within 30 days if ya’ ain’t satisfied for a full refund. Now that’s something to get teary-eyed and sing about.