ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JAN. 18, 2001
BY STEVE NEWTON
R.L. Burnside is one of the most popular blues artists around today, but up until five years ago he was barely known outside of his native northern Mississippi hill country. After being featured in the 1991 documentary film Deep Blues, and releasing the influential Too Bad Jim CD at about the same time on the then-fledgling Fat Possum label, Burnside came to the attention of New York City wildman Jon Spencer, who got him touring with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. From his Mississippi home, Burnside recalls how that relationship led to the recording of 1996’s A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, one of the most righteous old-blues-guy/young-rocker collaborations ever.
“We’d be sittin’ back in the dressing room,” drawls the former sharecropper and juke-joint proprietor, “and I’d be tellin’ him all them old dirty stories. He liked that, and he said, ‘Man, we oughta make an album out of that.’ I said, ‘No, man, I can’t do that out in the public!’ But he said, ‘If you ever decide to do the album, R.L., just call me; we’ll do it.’ I said, ‘Okay.’
“So we’d been home about three or four days, and we were sittin’ out there in my back yard drinkin’ some beer and some white lightning, and the phone rings. I had one of them cordless phones, you know, and my granddaughter brought that in the yard. ‘Hello, R.L., this is Jon. Are you ready to do the album?’ I said, ‘Hell, yeah, if it don’t help me, it can’t hurt me none.’ In about two days, he came down and rented one of them hunting clubs about five or six miles out from where I live at, and we did the album in four hours.”
An over-the-top party record—which Billboard likened to “the Stooges backing up Bo Diddley”—the outrageous A Ass Pocket of Whiskey made Burnside an unlikely champion of the indie-rock world. It led to the recording of Mr. Wizard in ’97 and 1998’s Come On In, which pitted his raw blues against modern electronica, courtesy of producer Tom Rothrock (Beck, Elliot Smith).
Come On In was a critical and commercial success, with Burnside’s evocative voice and mantralike guitar riffs being embraced by a growing legion of new fans. It included a curious photo of the grizzled bluesman standing in his kitchen, holding a Stratocaster and gazing toward a heavily padlocked fridge. The chains have come off that appliance since then, though. “I got a chance to take ’em off after some of the kids left the house,” explains Burnside with a chuckle. “When they were there, I’d buy my wife what she needs, and they’d go in and eat it up. I said, ‘I’m gonna have to lock this thing up!’ ”
One of those fridge-raiding rascals, drummer Cedric Burnside, will accompany his granddad at Richard’s on Richards on Friday (January 19), along with guitarist Kenny Brown, the elder Burnside’s “adopted son”. Brown handles the acoustic guitar on the title track of Burnside’s latest CD, Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down, which carries on his late-’90s tradition of mixing samples, scratches, and funked-up beats with a sometimes joyous, sometimes mournful backwoods-blues vibe.
At 74, Burnside doesn’t get around that much anymore, although a recent road trip had him playing the famed House of Blues in Chicago. You’ve gotta wonder what could lure him to that city, considering the brutal facts laid out in “R.L.’s Story”, Heaven’s closing track. Against a haunting backdrop of reverb-heavy slide guitar, Burnside details how a sizable portion of his family was killed there in the 1940s, all murdered within a year’s time.
“I had two uncles and two brothers and my father,” he says, “five of us people got killed there. My dad got his cheque, and some of them dope smokers killed him and robbed him. And one of my uncles got killed by some guy about his wife—he caught him with his wife. And I don’t know…one of my brothers was a doctor, and I think he was sellin’ drugs, then he quit, so they killed him.
“It’s changed a little now,” notes Burnside of the Windy City, “but it’s still rough up there. Course, it’s rough all over the world. Even down in Mississippi some.”
R.L. Burnside sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know:
On how a 74-year-old deals with the rigours of the road: “I just don’t travel as much as I used to. I used to go out and stay two or three weeks, but I won’t go out but four or five days now.”
On who he likes to listen to in his spare time: “Well, I listen to a lot of music, but I stick with the blues. I like them Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, and stuff. I like them kinda blues.”
On how he came to record the old Aretha Franklin hit “Chain of Fools” on his latest album: “Some people at the record company heard me sing it, you know, and they said, ‘Uh, R.L., can we put that on the album?’ I said, ‘If you don’t get mad you can.’ ”