Sliding, screeching and pounding, the intoxicating sound of R.L. Burnside's guitar is full of elemental power. This is as raw as it gets: With due respect, George Thorogood, Stevie Ray Vaughan and a host of great hard-driving acts are embellishers next to Burnside, who embodies the efforts, by homegrown label Fat Possum Records, to revisit traditional rural blues. Burnside, with labelmates Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early (see the story on page 96), performs in a Fat Possum showcase this weekend at the Rhythm Room.
Robert Lee Burnside is a man of few words in concert. His favorite, sometimes sole, commentary between songs is, "Well, all right!" But offstage he'll lend his thick-as-molasses drawl to volumes about his life. Like most artists on Fat Possum, Burnside grew up, and still lives, in the Mississippi hill country just south of the Tennessee border.
Being a sharecropper's son "was hard work," he says. "Made my hands tough as the blues." One of the many "we were so poor" stories Burnside likes to repeat is that his father would give his sister and him a nickel not to eat supper. At night, his dad would steal them back, and then whup them the next morning for losing them.
Burnside began playing guitar at 19, learning by watching his neighbor Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Muddy Waters, who had married his first cousin. In the '40s, he studied some with John Lee Hooker, but city life didn't sit well with him, so he returned home to again work the fields. All the while he continued to play house parties and juke joints around Holly Springs.
One night in 1967, Arhoolie Records producer George Mitchell heard Burnside at Junior's, a juke joint owned by his neighbor, the recently departed bluesman Junior Kimbrough. He excitedly got Burnside to make his first recordings for inclusion on a compilation, Mississippi Delta Blues: Blow My Blues Away--Vol. 2.
A decade later, Burnside recorded once more with Arhoolie after forming a band with his sons called the Sound Groove Machine. By 1992, Burnside's deep Delta blues style was so distilled and definitive that he was featured in the documentary Deep Blues, which gained national recognition.
Founded in 1991 in Oxford, Mississippi, Fat Possum Records has quickly earned national acclaim producing works by "deep blues" artists from the rural South. The label's brave philosophy, according to its co-owner, Matthew Johnson, is to get "guys who have never been recorded." They may not have phones or cars or a steady job, but they're veterans of a very raw form of the blues.
Fat Possum producer and blues historian Robert Palmer captured sounds from vets like Kimbrough, Burnside, Robert Cage, and Williams and Early that reach so far back to blues roots, they make Howlin' Wolf seem modern.
But the sessions also challenge these artists to take giant leaps into uncharted territory. Burnside is a stunning example. From his first Fat Possum recording, 1992's Bad Luck City, to 1998's Come on In, with its eerie, repetitive loops and samples, the somewhat iconoclastic ambassador of the label has attracted a huge young following.
Burnside currently tours with his grandson Cedric on maniacal drums, and longtime friend Kenny Brown on slide guitar. Live, the 71-year-old transcends any recording he's made. So hypnotic are his sets, he usually sits in a Buddha position while performing, as if to dare you to "come on in."
"Well, all right!"