If you’re a fan of R.L. Burnside, and all of his recent permutations, this re-released CD will only whet your appetite for a whole different side of Hill Country blues. In the last few years Fat Possum has thrown into the market a kind of blues that few people had heard. Add into this Fat Possum mix Burnside’s flings with John Spencer and a penchant for sampling, dubbing, and remixing and Hill Country blues sounded vaguely unrecognizable as blues at all. But the roots of Fat Possum’s new sounds grew from a dedication to bringing the blues of Northern Mississippi to the public. Now, looking backwards, the label brings us these early, sometimes lost and forgotten, recordings.
Originally released in 1984, Mississippi Hill Country Blues has many of Burnside’s signature tunes such as “Shake ‘Em on Down” and “Rolling and Tumbling”. (The significant gap comes in the absence of “Goin’ Down South”, Burnside’s almost omnipresent frightening anthem of the South.) For recent devotees of Burnside, Mississippi Hill Country Blues will sound quiet, thoughtful, even contemplative. None of Burnside’s raunchy guitar erupts from this evenly recorded work. In fact, all the tracks on this CD feature only Burnside with his guitar. Straight, no chaser. Burnside’s skills and depth shine through consistently on this CD, leaving no real highs or lows in either performance or production. This uniformity makes Mississippi Hill Country Blues as whole a high point for any blues fan, rather than relegating a single track or live moment to hagiographic blues moment.
Burnside as a musician is fluid and ductile. His career has been long and convoluted. He has been a solo performer, played happy, funky versions of his tunes with the Sound Machine in the late 1970s, and ripped heads off with John Spencer. Mississippi Hill Country Blues is the backbone to all of Burnside’s permutations. This re-release sounds a bit like Pink Anderson with a nod to the future of blues, rather than to the woods. Burnside’s first recording, My Black Name A-Ringin’ grew primarily out of a 1960s desire by music afficionados and the industry to re-discover and highlight the folk music of black America, and in many ways this record began Burnside’s varied and fruitful recording career. Mississippi Hill Country Blues is one step on the way.
Fat Possum has obviously moved to expand its offerings. Primarily, the label is known for highlighting relatively unknown artists who are famous in the small world of northern Mississippi. But even within this genre, they have pushed musical boundaries by introducing new formats for traditional blues and incorporating modern musical technology in their re-envisioning of this traditionally acoustic music. But by looking into back catalogs and uncovering the dusty works of artists in their own catalog they do a great service to both their fans and to all blues lovers alike. For any blues connoisseur who believes that Fat Possum has soiled the temple of authenticity with their mixing of motifs, this Burnside re-issue should give him or her hope for the future of the label. But for any fan of Fat Possum (like myself), Mississippi Hill Country Blues merely provides a kind of missing link between the recent Burnside brilliance and mania of noise and the more traditional blues forms. Burnside is an example of how blues music is not, and ought never remain, stagnant in tradition.