R.L. Burnside keeps his fridge chained shut and his blues cool as hell

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JUNE 24, 1999

BY STEVE NEWTON

On the back cover of his latest CD, Come On In, Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside is pictured standing in his modest kitchen, strumming a Stratocaster and gazing toward his fridge—which is chained shut. Since Burnside has been known to distill his own moonshine, you might think the steel links are extra protection for a prized cache of illicit whiskey. But Burnside’s precautionary measures are much more basic.

“That’s to keep everybody from gettin’ all my food out,” explains the 72-year-old musician, over the phone from his Mississippi home. “My grandkids would get all my food out, and I ain’t gonna have nothin’ to eat when I gets back home.”

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One of those fridge-raiding rascals, Cedric Burnside, is pictured on the Come On In disk cheerfully tossing the photographer the bird—with both hands. Maybe the sassy lad gets away with rude gestures because he also plays drums for the keeper of the grub.

“All my boys can play some,” reveals the father of 12, “but they don’t give enough money for four or five of us to go out on the road, so just three of us go now—me and Cedric and a white boy I’ve been playin’ with a long time, Kenny Brown.”

Brown shares the guitar-playing duties with Burnside on Come On In, and when I mention how the former’s raw slide work ignites the track “Let My Baby Ride”, Burnside agrees with an enthusiastic “Yeahhh!”, pronouncing it with the same passionate tone he uses in that very song. Burnside learned how to holler “Yeahhh”—and do a few other things—from the likes of legendary Delta bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell.

“That’s the guy I grew up around,” says Burnside. “Course, after I got up about 17 years old I went up to Chicago, and Muddy Waters was married to a first cousin of mine, so I got to meet him and be around him for two or three years.”

Unlike Waters’s, Burnside’s name wasn’t widely known until recent years, when his evocative voice and mantralike guitar riffs were embraced by a new, young audience, such as those who follow the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Burnside’s previous tourmates. Thanks in part to Fat Possum Records and its idea of remixing several of his recordings with a dance beat, Burnside’s CDs are outselling those of every other blues artist except B.B. King. So how does Burnside explain his recent success? He doesn’t. “I’m just tryin’ to get the people to understand, you know, that the blues is the root of all the music.”

Burnside plays the Yale next Thursday (July 1). For those who haven’t yet experienced his raucous juke-joint blues, now might be the time. He doesn’t plan to tour till he drops dead of old age. “I don’t like to be out there too long,” he says, “and I can’t stand a lotta walkin’ like I used to. But I’m gonna try to do it for four or five more years, if the Lord keep blessin’ me.”

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