Playin' Possum

To better understand the way people acquire language, linguists are always on the lookout for a wolf boy--a person raised without benefit of human contact. When the 1993 documentary film and soundtrack Deep Blues introduced guitarists Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside to an audience beyond northern Mississippi juke joints, it was as if the wolf boys of blues had been found. Here were two men, well on in years, who had evolved a distinctive, inspired style in relative isolation--far from city nightclubs, record deals and television specials.

Not that their words and chords came from a vacuum. Instead, they'd been handled and passed on from one generation to the next so that the inheritance belonged as much to the dancers in front of the low bandstand as it did to the musicians. When Kimbrough or Burnside plays "Old Black Mattie," for example, there's a twofold thrill for their local audience: The song is familiar because it's older than the poor dirt of the hills, yet each man is expected to bring something new to the party. Neither disappoints. Kimbrough, 58, lays down a heavy, hallucinatory groove, while Burnside, 68, plays the song with twangy, chiming abandon, his voice big and old.

Much of the Deep Blues soundtrack was recorded live in tiny Mississippi clubs like Kimbrough's juke joint in Holly Springs, and through the sounds of the audience, one can almost sense the sweat, the bare bulbs and the pictures tacked to the walls--the ambiance big-money clubs try, but usually fail, to re-create.

The album presents two old bluesmen who have made their separate peace with the modern world. Their themes--demons, faithless lovers and lonely nights--are the essential stuff of the blues, and neither man compromises his music to reach a wider audience. Kimbrough and Burnside are idiosyncratic voices, strange in the sense of roots exposed with the dirt still clinging to them.

Those roots are now exposed for good. Earlier this year, a fledgling Mississippi blues label called Fat Possum Records released two LPs each by Kimbrough and Burnside that, collectively, represent the best blues albums of this decade. And surprisingly, thanks to a distribution deal with Capricorn Records, they're not hard to find. The makers of Deep Blues discovered in Kimbrough and Burnside a hidden treasure trove, and Fat Possum is now determined to spread the wealth.

Prior to Deep Blues and the subsequent Fat Possum recordings, the only evidence of Kimbrough's existence outside Holly Springs was a footnote in an obscure music text: In 1976, music writer Peter Guralnick profiled rockabilly musician Charlie Feathers, who was born near Holly Springs a year after Kimbrough; Feathers learned guitar from Kimbrough. Feathers called Kimbrough "the greatest blues singer in the world. Chuck Berry had nothing on him."

At that point, even the savviest reader could have been forgiven for asking, "Junior who?"

As for R.L. Burnside, before Fat Possum, you could search the indexes of blues reference books until your fingers bled and still find no mention.

The story of how Kimbrough and Burnside traveled from a small, woodsy pocket of Mississippi to the shelves of Tower Records outlets began in 1981, when former New York Times music critic Robert Palmer slogged his way down Mississippi's back roads for a book on the history of Delta blues. Somehow, he missed Kimbrough and Burnside. A decade later, British rocker Dave Stewart (at one time, half of Eurythmics) gave Palmer the money to go back south and line up authentic players for a film documentary. This time, Palmer found the two men right where they'd been all along--not in the Delta, but northward, in the highland that begat Mississippi Fred McDowell, where fife-and-drum bands had long been popular, and where Kimbrough and Burnside dispensed corn liquor and long, trancelike grooves from elaborate shacks.

"I was 'round him for most of all my life," Burnside says of McDowell, who was "discovered" by the Rolling Stones. "We lived about 15 miles apart, and I used to be at every house party he played. A lot of Sundays, I spent all day at his house getting down."

About the same time Palmer found Holly Springs, two former writers for Living Blues magazine, Matthew Johnson and Peter Lee, started the Fat Possum blues label in Oxford, Mississippi. (Johnson has said he's been a blues hound from the time he heard "When the Levee Breaks" by Led Zeppelin and realized there weren't any levees in England.) Palmer stepped in and produced a pair of albums each with Kimbrough and Burnside, recording some of the songs in Junior's juke and some in a makeshift studio in Oxford, behind Jimmy's Auto Care.

With Burnside's fierce attack and Kimbrough's hypnotic drone, they make some of the freshest, most exciting sounds to enter the marketplace in years--the raucous sounds of Saturday night in rural Mississippi transferred direct-to-digital.

Palmer took a hands-off approach in the studio, and he doesn't romanticize the product. "The sound is so slashing and chaotic that a lot of this stuff is really sort of punk rock," he says. "The records we make might almost get over more to the kids who are into abrasive, dissonant guitar bands than they would to the typical blues fan."

The first Possum release, Burnside's Bad Luck City, got rave reviews--and sold a grand total of 713 copies, putting rocking rural bluesmen on a commercial par with Pulitzer Prize-winning poets. But then, just when the night seemed darkest, there was a twist worthy of any capitalist fable: A sugar daddy entered the picture. Widespread Panic keyboardist John Hermann, an ex-New Yorker who had relocated to Oxford, invested in the faltering label; and hisband's label, Capricorn Records, subsequently agreed to promote and distribute FatPossum albums.

Last July, Capricorn released Burnside's second album for the label, Too Bad Jim, and recently rereleased Bad Luck City. The label also has rereleased Kimbrough's two albums, All Night Long and Sad Days, Lonely Nights (despite the latter album's title, Kimbrough claims to have fathered 22 children).

What the men have to offer is electric folk in its molasseslike essence: sounds for drinking and suggestive dancing, for shouting. Music that makes the stars seem that much brighter when you step outside for air. Old music. Good music. But marketable music?

"Way back yonder, about 12 or 20 years ago, people weren't listening to the blues much," says Burnside. "But now, a lot of people are starting to understand that it all came from the blues. All of it. And so this is a better time to be a bluesman than it ever was, because we are finally getting respect.


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