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."
Such knowledge didn't stop him from performing, though, and when George Mitchell, a producer and blues explorer for Arhoolie Records, traveled to Mississippi in the mid-Sixties looking for talent, Burnside's name came up. "Someone told him about me, and he came out and recorded me at my house," Burnside remembers. "And then he came back in about a year and asked if he could make an album out of it. And I said, 'It's all right with me.'"
Mississippi Delta Blues: Blow My Blues Away, Vol. 2, a 1967 platter on which Burnside performed alongside other acoustic-blues acts from his part of the country, lifted Burnside from obscurity to semi-obscurity. He became a concert attraction in Canada, Europe and selected American cities, but he never made enough money to leave the farm permanently. "I could only tour a couple times a year," he says, "because I had to drive a cotton-picker or a combine or something to make a living for my family." His employers saw him as a valuable commodity: During the Seventies, Burnside has said, he shot a man in the back of the head in self-defense but served only a three-month sentence for the killing because he was needed back in the fields. Later he owned a series of juke joints, but unlike Junior's Place, run for twenty years by Burnside's sometimes friendly/sometimes unfriendly rival Junior Kimbrough (who died last year), none of them lasted for very long.
Things didn't begin to improve much until the dawn of the Nineties, when Matthew Johnson, who'd founded Fat Possum Records with money from a student loan, sponsored a Burnside album, Bad Luck City. The disc tanked commercially, but it got the attention of Widespread Panic keyboardist John Hermann, who hooked Johnson up with the late journalist Robert Palmer. A decade earlier, Palmer had written a book called Deep Blues, and with the financial support of Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, who was branching out into film production at the time, he headed to Mississippi to make a documentary of the same name. In the movie, Burnside gets as much face time as anyone else, and he performs two scorching tunes on the 1992 Deep Blues soundtrack--"Jumper on the Line," a feverish drone over which he wails and moans, and "Long Haired Doney," in which he adds drama by eccentrically dropping lyrics right and left.
These performances didn't turn Burnside's world upside down, but they earned him plenty of notoriety--and so did 1994's Too Bad Jim, a Fat Possum disc distributed by Capricorn Records (Widespread Panic's label). Unlike so much contemporary blues, the music on Burnside's disc, produced by Palmer, was as raw as a snuff flick and nearly as nasty. Burnside's guitar, supplemented by the most primal of rhythm sections, screams and clangs in accompaniment to lyrics in which he unearths the sins of mankind and tries them on for size. He hollers out the words to ".44 Pistol," "Death Bell Blues" and other lethal concoctions like a man in mid-exorcism--which may have been precisely how he felt. In his liner notes to the full-length, Palmer reports seeing Burnside waving a gun at his audience at one show and overhearing him mutter "the devil--that's who I'm serving" at another.
The next Burnside disc, 1996's A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (on Matador Records), was even more surprising: In it, Burnside is teamed with the members of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion for a noisy throwdown diametrically opposed to the polite, tourist-friendly sounds that pass for the blues these days. ("Those are the kind of blues some people like to listen to," Burnside acknowledges. "But them aren't the real blues. The real blues started from that rough sound, and that's how I play it.") Spencer's Elvis mannerisms seem especially affected when heard alongside Burnside's utterly authentic ravings, but the downright lunacy of the proceedings eventually overwhelms any sense of cultural usurpation. Simply put, "Goin' Down South," "The Criminal Inside Me," "Tojo Told Hitler" and the rest constitute a glorious mess that succeeded in introducing Burnside to a new generation.
Last year's Come On In (a followup to 1997's Mr. Wizard, a more straightforward offering) is an attempt at an even more radical bit of revisionist mojo. Most of the tunes, issued as part of Fat Possum's new distribution arrangement with the punk-oriented Epitaph imprint, are radically remixed by Beck associate and Bongload Records impresario Tom Rothrock, with the final tune, "Heat," getting similar treatment from Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot, a previous Westword profile subject ("There's a Riot Going On," September 4, 1997). Purists were hugely offended by the machine-driven programming that alters "Been Mistreated," "Let My Baby Ride" and others, arguing that it made Burnside sound as if he was being sampled on his own album. But Burnside isn't complaining.
"I think it makes it better," he says about the tinkering, "because you get more younger people coming to the shows, and that's good. And I'm getting older people, too, because they never knew I did something like that, and it gets them dancing. And I think when people are dancing, that's when it's good. I love for people to be dancing, you know--having fun."
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Such alternative marketing has its drawbacks. The most loyal blues consumers--the kind who support comparatively commercial practitioners of the form, such as Robert Cray--know very little about Burnside, and the hipster fans who do are notoriously fickle. But even if the well begins to run dry, his standard of living is better now than ever before. Today he owns an actual house that's overflowing with relatives. "I have two of my sons and two of my daughters living there, and a lot of the other ones live close by, so they come by, too." He adds, "We've got twelve children living, me and my wife. We had thirteen, but one of my daughters got killed in a car wreck about nine years ago. So we've got twelve living kids now."
As for the total number of grandchildren, Burnside concedes, "I'd need a computer to figure that out," but he's especially close to one of them--Cedric Burnside, who plays drums in his band. (He describes Kenny Brown, the other member of his traveling trio, as "a white guy who came to my house one day and asked if I could teach him how to play.") Cedric is good company on the road, Burnside notes, and he provides a shot of energy when he needs one. "I do get tired sometimes," he concedes. "I don't like staying out there too long. But I figure I can go along for three or four more years, and then I'll retire."
As with everything Burnside says, this last sentence is very matter-of-fact; there's no romance in it. He sees no need for such pretense, especially now that he's finally being rewarded for a lifetime of hard knocks. Besides, the future is assured, whether he's around to see it or not. "When I stop playing, Cedric and them others are going to carry the blues on--try to keep it going," he maintains. "It'll be up to them."
R.L. Burnside, with Robert Cage. 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 27, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $14, 303-830-6700; 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 28, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $12.75, 303-443-3399.