By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Inkoo Kang
By Dave Herrerra
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In conversation, bluesman R.L. Burnside exudes satisfaction. He doesn't have an unkind word for anyone, and his comments glow with a sort of beatific acceptance: He delivers his most common replies--"Mmmmmm-hmmmmm," "That's right," "Oh, yeah" and "I really believe that"--in a sweet growl, like James Earl Jones after being mellowed by several shots of Jack Daniel's. At first it's difficult to reconcile this benevolent persona with the volcanic emotions that erupt from his albums, or to understand what it is about him that inspires the passions of musical flamethrowers such as Jon Spencer and Alec Empire, both of whom have collaborated with him. But even though Burnside has been in the public eye for only a relatively short time, he's a product of more than seven decades of tough living and nasty circumstances. (At least one man is said to have died at his hands.) So while his present level of success may seem modest to outside observers, it's a damn sight better than his arduous past--and with the years beginning to weigh heavily on his shoulders, he's determined to make the most of the time he's got left. "If the Lord is willing and I have my health and strength," he says, "I'll play music and go out and fish and enjoy life."
Robert Lee Burnside was born in 1926 Mississippi, "right off from Oxford, in that little old place they call Harmontown." Back then, the tiny burg was smack in the middle of plantation country that had changed little since the antebellum era: African-Americans were no longer referred to as slaves, but the distinction was more a matter of law than fact. Like practically all the other black men in the region, Burnside's father supported R.L. and his two siblings by scrabbling in the soil, but when he got the opportunity to split, he did so. He was living in Chicago before his little one was out of diapers, leaving the duty of raising his progeny to the people he left behind. "Well, my mother and my grandparents raised me up, yes they did," Burnside says. "Raised me up on the plantation, you know--picking cotton, pulling corn. Wasn't no steady hours. We did it from sunup to sundown."
The harshness of this schedule was exacerbated only by the bigotry that was part and parcel of living in the Mississippi Delta. "Yeah, racism was just an everyday thing," notes Burnside, who currently resides near the Mississippi community of Holly Springs. "It's like a different world now, but you can tell when some people would like to go on with the way things used to be. You can't operate now unless you go along with everybody, but not all them people like it."
Since the children of plantation workers were required to begin toiling alongside their parents by the time they were eight or nine, Burnside didn't get much traditional schooling, but his education in the blues was second to none. "Yeah, I grew up pretty close on to Fred McDowell. I watched him play when I was coming up young. When I was about fifteen, sixteen years old, I was singing spirituals in the church, too--me and my sister. But it was the blues that I liked. My mother and my grandmother both had a radio, and they liked to listen to them old blues, so I'd get to sit and listen to that. And they were good."
Before long, Burnside had picked up a guitar and was knocking out primitive variations on the music that so moved him. He got an opportunity to delve further into the style upon moving to Chicago. "My father was up there, and I stayed with him. He was working at one of them foundries, and I worked there for two, three years. And I got to meet Muddy Waters. He was a hero of mine, and he was married to one of my first cousins. I'd go on over to his house and listen to him almost every week."
Nonetheless, Burnside missed the land he knew so well, and when his bosses at the foundry rewarded him with a vacation, he headed back to Mississippi "to check up on my mother, you know, and see how she was doing," he says. While he was there, he met a woman named Alice, married her and settled down, more or less. "We farmed in Mississippi," Burnside explains, "and then we come to Memphis and stayed for a couple of years, then went back and farmed some more, then went to Memphis for two or three more years, trying to do what I could to make a little more money, you know?"
Burnside was singing and strumming as well; he was in demand at house parties and area dives. But that didn't mean he was foolish enough to think that the blues would make him rich. "It wasn't easy making money playing music," he says. "You could play all night and might make ten dollars and all the liquor you could drink, you know--and then you had to get up and go to the plantation the next morning."