Whiskey River

R.L. Burnside's passion for alcohol is matched only by his command of rawboned Delta blues

R.L. Burnside just took a swig of Jack Daniel's. He's sitting under the sweltering Mississippi sun on an August afternoon, listening to a fellow Delta bluesman. Again, he twists the cap off the plastic water bottle used to disguise the whiskey. Another gulp. "Yeah."

A few hours later, the 71-year-old Burnside takes the stage at the Sunflower River Blues Festival in Clarksdale. The hot, steamy day is chased by dark clouds rolling off the muddy river. The Delta dust begins to kick up as the crowd and stage begin to swing and sway to a tense, driving version of "Old Black Mattie."

Burnside's long, thick fingers, which picked cotton only decades ago, slide with ease up and down the neck of his guitar.

Burnside's performance at the festival is short-circuited by a storm that even he can't drive away with his wizardry and spellbinding, wicked blues.

"The blues is a feeling, you know," Burnside says. "You play it about how you feel."

Perhaps it is because Burnside's raw Delta magic so defies description that he has been burdened with more nicknames than Deion Sanders. Depending on which of his Mississippi acquaintances you speak to, Burnside is either known as Real Loose, Mr. Wizard, Reverend or simply Rural. All of the monikers fit.

"I'm still the beginning of the blues, you know," he says. "There ain't too many ol' blues players living now. A lot of 'em gone, but I'm tryin' to keep the blues going, you know. As long as the Lord spares me, I'm gonna try to keep the blues going. 'Cause the blues was the beginning of the music, and we might as well let it be the end."

Burnside lives with his wife, a daughter, grandchildren and countless other children and relatives about 11 miles southwest of Holly Springs, Mississippi, near the Tennessee border. The one-story brick house--two others burned to the ground--sits back from the road on ground that is the color of rust. A dozen cars and trucks surround the house.

Burnside is comfortable sitting on the worn couch in his small living room. The faded aqua walls unceremoniously hold a few awards and photographs. The whirl of fans and the buzz of flies are constant. The torn linoleum floor is covered with shoe prints of family members who constantly pass. Also on the floor are the remains of indigenous insects that have fallen victim to Burnside's fly swatter.

As Burnside speaks, he flashes a wide grin that holds no more than 11 teeth by threads. His eyes, sometimes green, sometimes blue, sometimes yellow, are the proverbial road maps to his soul. He stares with intensity, yet his gaze reflects a genuine warmth. Friends know, however, that his unconditional love for alcohol can fuel a dark, angry side.

Donnie Brown, a former guitarist for Burnside, warns, "Don't wake him up when he's sleeping off moonshine. If you do, he'll wake up swinging and knock your ass off."

Burnside is pretty up-front about his fondness for booze, wryly describing his favorite drink as ABB ("Anybody's Brand") and referring to Jack Daniel's and Johnny Walker as though they were members of his family.

For a man who has achieved relative success and considerable acclaim as a bluesman, Burnside remains surprisingly humble. He says he's "makin' a livin', getting by, you know."

"We ain't filthy rich, but I'm making a little money," he says. "Like I tell a lot of people, you know I'm not a millionaire."

Robert Lee Burnside was born on November 23, 1926, on a plantation in Harmontown, Mississippi. He was raised by his grandparents on Sander's Farms, which were spread over the gentle rolling hills of the north-central part of the state.

Growing up in Mississippi in the 1930s and 1940s was "kinda rough," he recalls. "You know, people couldn't do what they wanted. Black people couldn't go into the white people's place. You'd go in the back door if you went in, you know."

Burnside left the plantation after he and his wife separated, when he was 18. He sought better employment, and he landed a job in a foundry in Chicago. But before Burnside left the Delta, he picked up the guitar.

"I was trying, you know," Burnside says. "I was playing, even though I didn't know why I was doing it.

"Well, I could play a little, but not good enough to be out in the public, I didn't think, you know," he adds. Instead, he drew from the rich fountain of blues on Maxwell Street.

There was a special Delta-blues connection, as one of Burnside's cousins, Annie Mae, "was married to Muddy Waters," according to Burnside.

"I'd listen to him play, you know, I'd go there and watch him," Burnside says. "I wanted to do it so bad. Finally, I just kept on. I just wouldn't give it up, you know."

After toiling in Chicago for three years, Burnside left the city and returned to Mississippi country life. He got married, moved to Memphis for a bit and returned to the Holly Springs area, which became his permanent home.

"I don't like living in the city," Burnside says. "You're too close to somebody and everybody know what you doing at your house, see?"

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