Whiskey River

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?"

Burnside worked in the cotton and corn fields after he returned from city life. He fished at Sardis Lake and peddled his catch in the kudzu-covered countryside. It was during this time that he was playing at local house parties.

"We'd play, you know, at a house party I liked to drink and play guitar," he says. He played just about every Sunday night, usually by himself, performing traditional blues and his own versions of the then-current blues hits.

Burnside's mentors included Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Elmore James, Bukka White and John Lee Hooker. Not one to be stuck in the past and steeped in tradition, Burnside was also influenced by the Rolling Stones and Iggy Pop.

"There's nobody, you know, who would teach me anything, but I just watched them and picked it up," Burnside says. When pressed, he says, "I guess you could say Fred influenced me more, 'cause I was 'round him more than I was the other guys, you know."

Burnside's break came in 1967, when the first recordings of his songs were issued on the Arhoolie collection Mississippi Delta Blues: Blow My Blues Away Vol. 2. The album features 10 powerful acoustic country-blues cuts by Burnside, plus works by Joe Callicott and Houston Stackhouse.

In 1969, Burnside went on his first tour. He played for three weeks at a festival in Montreal. "I wasn't nervous no more to get out in front of people," he says.

Afterward, Burnside continued to play at local house parties and clubs. He also toured Europe with the Mississippi Delta Blues Band. Burnside played slide guitar and Sam Myers blew harp.

By the late '70s, Burnside--with sons Joseph and Daniel on bass and guitar and their brother-in-law Calvin Jackson on drums--formed the Sound Machine Groove. They attracted a young local crowd of dancers, including a growing number of white kids. In 1980, they recorded Burnside's second album, Sound Machine Groove.

Burnside then spent some time in the Netherlands, and recorded a number of acoustic tracks that were released on an import. In 1988, he and his harp man, John Neremberg, recorded another set of acoustic tracks in New York City.

In 1992, Burnside finally achieved national recognition when he was recorded by critic/historian Robert Palmer for the Robert Mugge documentary Deep Blues. The film features Burnside and the recently departed Junior Kimbrough and Jack Owens.

Palmer also produced Burnside's 1994 album Too Bad Jim for Fat Possum Records. It mixes Burnside originals with covers and other blues standards, and fuses the blues groove with a punk-rock edge.

After the release of Too Bad Jim, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion asked Burnside to open for the band. While on the road, Burnside recalls, "we'd be sitting in the dressing room talking and telling old stories and drinking, and I'd tell some old funny stories." According to Burnside, Spencer said, "Oh, yeah, we need to put out an album about that."

Burnside was skeptical. "Aw, man, there ain't anybody gonna buy nothing like this," he said.

A union of blues and punk took place on Burnside's next recording, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, on Matador/Fat Possum. Burnside is backed up by Spencer's Blues Explosion on a recording likened to Bo Diddley backed up by Iggy Pop and the Stooges. "I played all my same ol' blues through there, but we got different players with me there," Burnside says with his typical sense of understatement.

Since working with Spencer, Burnside has continued his artistically risky fusion of traditional blues with contemporary sounds. In fact, Burnside's new album, Come On In, may be the weirdest blues release of the year, if not the decade. While parts of the album (such as a solo performance of the title song recorded live at the Rhythm Room) stick to Burnside's down-and-dirty formula, several songs feature pseudotechno drum programs by Tom Rothrock, overdubbed on Burnside's basic tracks. The approach is initially a bit disconcerting, because it suggests that Burnside is giving up control of his work for commercial reasons, but the grooves grow strangely more intoxicating with each listen. Burnside simply describes his latest recording as "a lot of hard-up jamming."

Burnside's brand of blues runs the spectrum from the deep Delta sound to the rough-and-tumble feel of juke joint and beyond. His style has been described as "sloppy blues groove" played in the John Lee Hooker "boogie" style. Burnside mumbles his vocal delivery, and the tension builds until the music explodes.

He seems unfazed by critics of his recent recordings, perhaps because he knows that his shows attract a younger, nontraditional blues crowd. His unlikely crossover crusade took another big step forward recently when he opened for the Beastie Boys in Toronto.

"I feel good over that, because people just now beginning to realize that the roots is old, and that's the beginning of the music," Burnside says. "That's where the music started from."

R.L. Burnside is scheduled to perform on Friday, August 21, and Saturday, August 22, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 8 p.m.


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