R.L. Burnside’s style, in terms of music, aesthetic,s and behavior, was characterized by the Mississippi hill country. With the exception of a brief time in Chicago and various tours over the years, Burnside spent most of his life in a small radius within Northern Mississippi. Burnside’s appearance left little ambiguity; he was a farmer and a bluesman and he looked the part. Yet, despite his appearance, Burnside was unique even among fellow north Mississippi bluesman. Up until Burnside was in his mid-60’s, his “musical career” mainly consisted of jamming with friends and family in Mississippi juke joints. Burnside’s life was a rollercoaster of highs and lows. His early life consisted of mostly lows, starting out as a dirt poor Mississippi farmer, moving to Chicago where several of his brothers and his father were murdered, and then moving back down south where he would be convicted of murder and sentenced to six months in prison. However, in the 1990s, after decades of obscurity with few releases, he was signed by Fat Possum Records and catapulted into a new world. In an age when grunge and Hip Hop were dominating US charts, R.L. Burnside, a 70-ish former share cropper seemed out of place. He seemed like an American relic that people didn’t know still existed. Nevertheless, he was able to adapt his music, collaborating with punk and Hip Hop artists, while simultaneously maintaining his style and authenticity. The result was a new sound that is unlikely to ever be replicated.
(Burnside Playing at Home 1992: Jumper Hanging Out on the Line/Long Haired Doney – From film “Deep Blues”)
There is a subtle element of the hill country style that distinguishes Burnside’s music from other Mississippi Delta blues musicians. Whereas the delta blues usually has a 1-4-5 chord progression, the hill country blues generally contains little to no chord progression. Often times, R.L. Burnside and other hill country players would play an entire song with one chord. Junior Kimbrough, a close friend of R.L. Burnside’s and a fellow hill country blues musician, was quoted as saying, “My songs, they have just the one chord, there’s none of that fancy stuff you hear now, with lots of chords in one song. If I find another chord, I leave it for another song” (http://realdeepblues.blogspot.com). With songs that emphasized rhythm over melodic complexity, Burnside’s sound, and the Mississippi hill country sound in general, lends itself to improvised jamming. There was nothing fancy about his style but his bold and dynamic voice, along with his droning guitar style, captivates listeners. Burnside was able to put his own spin on traditional Mississippi blues songs like “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and “Poor Black Mattie,” which he altered to fit his style.
(Poor Black Mattie, 1984)
Despite being categorized as a Mississippi hill country blues musician, Burnside had a unique style, even among his contemporaries. Matthew Johnson, founder of Fat Possum Records said, “Everything he touches becomes his. It’s what we call Burnside style. In the case of inanimate objects, that’s bad. I mean, you could give him a rock, come back the next day, and it would be busted. But with songs it’s good” (McInerney). Burnside could take any song and make it his own because he had such a bold and unique style.
(Cover of Album: Mississippi Hill Country Blues: Recorded in the early 1980s and re-released by Fat Possum in 2001).
Part of Burnside’s style is shaped by his family. Burnside had a huge family, with twelve children and dozens of grandchildren. Burnside would often jam and play live shows with members of his family. This image of Burnside’s family is not the archetypal American family that was often depicted in the 1950s. They didn’t spend their time in doors, watching TV together. In fact the family spent many evenings hanging out and jamming together.
(“Family Jam,” 1978, Alan Lomax)
In 1980, he released an album which featured him playing along with his sons Joseph and Daniel Burnside, as well as Calvin Jackson, his so- in-law. Later on in his career he would play with his grandson, Cedric Burnside, as his drummer.
Nihilism as a form of Waywardness
Part of Burnside’s waywardness that persisted even after he achieved some commercial success was his nihilistic behavior. To put it simply, Burnside didn’t care about much besides his family and his music. Otherwise, he was not a morally restrained person. He was a heavy drinker. His favorite drink was a mixture of tomato juice and whiskey, which he called a “Bloody Motherfucker.” His Nihilism is apparent in his raw musical style. Burnside didn’t even have a preference for what guitar he played. Upon researching video footage of Burnside one will find that he hardly ever seems to play the same guitar twice. Matthew Johnson referenced his nihilism as one of the factors that made R.L. special. He said, “That’s what attracted me to him. He’s incorruptible because he just doesn’t care. As soon as he got good enough where people wanted to hear him play, he stopped having a guitar. Now he borrows guitars and people give them to him. He’ll play anything you put in his hands. I can’t even tell you how many ‘authentic’ R.L. Burnside guitars we’ve sold to collectors in Japan” (McInerney). His reckless behavior was a quintessential part of Burnside’s style. Johnson also recounts his first experience meeting him, “I remember the day I met R.L….We were driving in his car. He was drunk. Every damn light on his dashboard was on, red lights flashing everywhere. There were cows on the road, and he was driving with one hand. He’s definitely, like, nihilistic-in a friendly way. He loves when things go wrong. Tornadoes, hurricanes, floods-he just loves ’em” (McInerney). Although his behavior can be quite enjoyable and entertaining from afar, there can also be a dark side to this. In 1959, Burnside was incarcerated for shooting and killing a man. He claimed that he killed the man in self defense and was fortunate to receive a light sentence of six months in prison. Burnside explained his actions to the judge with a dark sense of humor “It was between him and the Lord, him dyin’… I just shot him in the head” (McInerney). Burnside is likely one of the most commercially successful convicted murderers.
Stardom and a New Sound
(Image from New York Times, 2005)
Very few commercially successful musicians reach stardom in their 70’s. In fact, R.L. didn’t even quit farming to focus on music till he was 68. Yet in 1996, with the release of the seminal album titled “A Ass Pocket Full of Whiskey,” Burnside had achieved some commercial success. The album featured Burnside in collaboration with the punk band John Spencer Blues Explosion. The album featured heavily distorted guitar and high energy vocals. Burnside, along with Fat Possum records, was successfully able to bring blues from the Mississippi Juke Joint to mainstream audiences without losing the rawness, the authenticity, or the style in the process. Burnside would later release an album of remixed versions of his blues songs. When Burnside was approached with the idea of remixing his songs he responded in appropriate nihilistic fashion, “Well, I don’t give a damn. Let’s do it” (Burnside, 1999). The results can be most prominently heard on the 1998 album “Come on In.”
(Let My Baby Ride – Video)
The album does alter the presentation of Burnside’s music but it is still able to keep the groove of the Mississippi hill country style, placing it in a modern format that would appeal to young listeners.
Burnside Lives On
(Image from: http://www.fatpossum.com/artists/rl-burnside)
Following R.L.’s death in 2005, the commercial success of his music continued. His songs were heavily featured in the 2006 film Black Snake Moan, starring Samuel L. Jackson. In the film, Samuel L. Jackson portrays a farmer and former bluesman in rural Mississippi. It would not be a stretch of the imagination to think that Jackson’s character was loosely based on R.L. Burnside. The soundtrack featured several songs written by R.L. Burnside, alongside songs by other Mississippi hill country players like Junior Kimbrough and Fat Possum label-mates.
(Samuel L. Jackson performing the R.L. Burnside song “Just Like a Bird Without a Feather” in the film “Black Snake Moan” )
(Samuel L. Jackson performing in “Black Snake Moan” with Cedric Burnside [R.L.’s grandson] and Kenny Brown [R.L.’s “adopted son”] [Explicit Lyrics])
Burnside, R.L. Personal Interview. 11 1999. Interviewed by Ed Mabe. RL Burnside: One Bad-Ass Bluesman http://www.furious.com/perfect/rlburnside.html.
Fusilli, Jim. Wall Street Journal. N.p., 31 2009. Web. <http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2009/07/31/catching-up-rl-burnsides-a-ass-pocket-full-of-whiskey/>.
McInerney, Jay. “White Man at The Door.” New Yorker 77.46 (2002): 55. Music Index. Web. http://realdeepblues.blogspot.com/2009/08/two-classic-rl-burnside-articles.html
Morris, Chris. “R.L. Burnside Brews Blues On Matador.” Billboard 108.25 (1996): 10. Music Index. Web.
Beesley, Bradley, dir. Hill Stomp Hollar. 1999. Film. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VLAi7j-FnoI>. (Hill Stomp Hollar)
Lomax, Alan, prod. The Land Where the Blues Began, 1979. 1979. Film. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0TLP_DCB3I>. (The Land Where the Blues Began, 1979)
Palmer, Robert, writ. Deep Blues: A Musical Pilgrimage to the Crossroads. Dir. Robert Mugge. 1992. Film. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWd6PzFaZLY>. (Deep Blues: A Musical Pilgrimage to the Crossroads)
Stein, Mandy, dir. You See Me Laughin’. 2002. Film. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SPlX2K1vl-A>. (You See Me Laughin’)
For any guitar players, here’s a really cool instructional video that breaks down R.L. Burnside’s guitar playing in the song “Poor Black Mattie.” It’s pretty difficult but a really cool technique if you get the hang of it.