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Blues Explosion 

The rough-and-tumble blues of R.L. Burnside

Wednesday, Sep 20 1995
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Sixty-eight-year-old R.L. Burnside, father of 12, one-time farmhand and commercial fisherman, just got over a bout with the flu. He'd gone home to upstate Mississippi for some bed rest, but now he's back out on the road, playing music. Punk music.

Actually, Burnside plays the blues. He plays them sitting down; only recently did he pick up an electric guitar in lieu of his acoustic. Still, his rough-and-tumble, droning style so resembles the blooze of many contemporary scuzz-rockers that earlier this year he was invited to tour with the Lower East Side's No. 1 deconstruction squad, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. "Hoodoo gitdown, man," Burnside laughs during a recent phone interview. "We did 19 days with them."

Burnside's first recognition came during the folk-blues revival of the 1960s, when he played the blues festival circuit for an earlier generation of curious collegians; he also recorded for Arhoolie Records and other small labels in Harlem and Paris. Returning to the Mississippi hill country, he performed only locally for years before being reintroduced to an international audience as a featured performer in historian Robert Palmer's 1991 documentary, Deep Blues.

Palmer, former New York Times pop music critic and author of a definitive 1981 book on the blues (also called Deep Blues), recently began producing a succession of Burnside's peers for Fat Possum Records out of Oxford, Miss. As that label merged with Nashville's better-distributed Capricorn Records, lean and raw recordings by Burnside, juke-joint proprietor Junior Kimbrough, Paul "Wine" Jones, and other unsung guitarists are finding their way to an appreciative audience.

In a recent issue of Billboard, Palmer expounds on the crude, entrancing delivery of Fat Possum artists. "The sound is so slashing and chaotic," he says, "that a lot of this stuff is really sort of punk rock. The records we make might almost get over more to the kids who are into abrasive, dissonant guitar bands than they would to the typical blues fan."

In the movie Deep Blues, Burnside greets Palmer's camera crew and executive producer Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics in the dusty front yard of his tar-paper shack, cranking from an old amp a hypnotically repetitive lick he calls "Jumper on the Line." Several of his progeny stand clustered around a battered pickup and a rimless Dodge sedan; wild chickens strut across the property.

"I've got a whole band in my family," Burnside tells me proudly. "Joe, Dwayne, Derek. ... My girls can play some bass, they play bass guitar. My baby boy [18] plays drums, and Dexter plays drums. ... We got 'em going out to stay with the blues."

Like Blues Fest headliner John Lee Hooker, Burnside's style is derived from linear, one-note African traditions and, as Palmer points out in the film, the percussive element of centuries-old fife-and-drum music. Burnside says he perfected his craft in the company of Mississippi hill country acoustic bluesman Fred McDowell (who was "discovered" by the Rolling Stones).

"I was 'round him for the biggest part of my life," Burnside says. McDowell, he explains, "was out of Tennessee, but he moved around in Mississippi. ... We was, oh, 15 miles apart. I used to be at every house party he played at, you know. We'd go to his house a lot of times on Sunday, and set by his house and play."

For the past decade or more, Burnside has been entertaining at labelmate Junior Kimbrough's Holly Springs, Miss., juke joint. Kimbrough, too, employs the open-ended hill country style, which is vastly different than the better-known Delta/Chicago blues of men like Muddy Waters. Burnside says he went electric "oh, two, three years ago. A lot of people say it looks better for the old blues, you know." His method, however, hasn't changed: "It's just that you get a better sound from an electric. You don't have to hit the strings as hard."

In the liner notes for Burnside's universally praised 1994 record Too Bad Jim, producer Palmer writes that one rainy Sunday scheduled for recording was marred by a series of inexplicable setbacks. In rapid succession, a bass guitar and drum kit both fell apart, and then a heavy glass door fell out of its frame and was prevented from smashing the recording board only through the timely intervention of the producer's skull. "R.L.," Palmer notes, "seemed to enjoy these incidents immensely."

With a phlegmy chuckle, Burnside agrees. "That's a day for the blues," he says. "They say when your woman leaves and you go home late at night and you meet the cat before you get to the house" -- he stops to imitate a high-pitched meow, whining, "She ain't here, she ain't here" -- "you got the blues then."

Burnside says he has seen variations on the blues come and go, including funk, disco, and the voguish folklore dissections of art students like the Blues Explosion and Railroad Jerk. To him, his own style is bedrock. "Way back yonder, ten, twelve years ago, people wasn't listening to the blues much," he says.

"People would do something where they could make some fast money, people could dance and clown and carry on over. But all they did was just pepped the music up. It was all the blues. But now, people are beginning to realize that's where all the music started from," he concludes. "Right now is a better time than it ever was."

The Fat Possum Mississippi Juke Joint Caravan, featuring R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Dave Thompson, plays Sat, Sept. 23, at the 23rd Annual San Francisco Blues Festival at Fort Mason; call 979-5588.

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