Posted by: kubiakl | August 16, 2009

R.L. Burnside

I’ll never forget my first introduction to the Mississippi Hill Country style.  It was in the Audiogalaxy days when I had an on-campus job.  The job site was a small building right across the street from the University, so we were seperate from the other IT departments.  Most of our work orders required us to head across the street to check out whatever computer problem there was, so we would usually wait until there were a few work orders backed up before trekking.  During our (plentiful) downtime we would download and listen to music.

One day a band was featured on the Audiogalaxy page – the North Mississippi Allstars.  I generally liked blues music at the time so I decided to check it out.  The first song I downloaded was “Shake ‘Em On Down”.

It was like being hit with a hammer.

So I listened to more.  I bought their album, “Shake Hands With Shorty”.  I listened to it constantly.  Then I started to do some reading – turns out this stuff wasn’t new.

See, “Shake Hands With Shorty” is actually a cover album.  The Allstars took these old Mississippi Hill Country songs they had learned first hand from people like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside and interpreted them in their own style.  I did what I usually do when learning about new music.  I went for the source material.

I figured I would hear toned down versions of the Allstars’ songs, which is what usually happens when you listen to the originals.  What I got instead was something even more powerful.  What I got was R.L. Burnside:

It took some time for R.L. to get recognized… and by that I mean it took forty years.  He picked up the guitar after hearing John Lee Hooker in the late 40’s/early 50’s and had released a couple of albums when he signed to Fat Possum records in the 90’s.

Fat Possum has one of the best artist rosters of any label.  If it’s raw and rough, Fat Possum has it.  T-Model Ford, Robert Belfour, Bob Log III, Junior Kimbrough… seriously.  Check them out.

It was through his new recordings that Jon Spencer found R.L. and took him on tour.  They also recorded an album together, “Ass Pocket Of Whiskey”.  The Blues Explosion’s indie/punk aesthetic meshed well with Burnside’s style.

The power in his music didn’t come from the drone of an electric guitar either.  Burnside could chill you with just an acoustic guitar:

A lot of it had to do with the hypnotic style that the North Mississippi Hill Country artists use.  It’s not about chord changes and melody, it’s about rhythm.  This was the music of the juke joint and fish fries, not the concert hall.

Sadly, R.L. is another great who is no longer with us.  He died in 2005 at the age of 78.  But you can believe his music lives on – his son Dwayne was a member of the North Mississippi Allstars for a time, and his grandson Cedric continues to pound the skins for local Mississippi groups.  His influence can be heard on bands like the Allstars, the Black Keys, the Blues Explosion, and countless others.

Thanks for the boogie R.L..  It’ll be a long time before it’s forgotten.

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