He's had a good year, too, no matter what some critics say. Burnside spoke by phone recently from his home near Holly Springs, Mississippi, where he was catching up with his wife and 12 children before setting out on the road again, valise of his own lunch meats in one hand, guitar in the other, to show the world what "heavy" means.
"I finally got to be noticed," he says. "I guess now they're all starting to realize where all the music be comin' from."
Although the singer and songwriter has sporadically recorded his trance-blues since the late 1960s, he didn't have much of an audience until his inclusion in rock critic Robert Palmer's superb '92 anthology Deep Blues (Atlantic). Burnside kicks off the 15-track set with his eerie, home-recorded "Jumper on the Line." Palmer subsequently produced two Burnside albums for the Fat Possum label.
In the liner notes for Burnside's second Fat Possum album, 1994's stunning Too Bad Jim, Palmer writes of the time Burnside happened to drift past an open microphone at a juke-joint recording session, muttering, "The devil--that's who I've been serving." The scary thing, Palmer writes, "is that R.L. thought nobody was listening."
Burnside's career took a stranger turn earlier this year, when the Matador label released Ass Pocket of Whiskey, 10 songs he cut in a single afternoon on a Holly Springs farm with en vogue New York noise rocker Jon Spencer and parts of Spencer's band Blues Explosion. Few who admire Burnside's sparse style and his resurrection are likely to welcome the bombastic interpolations of Spencer and his sidemen, guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins. But Jim DeKoster, reviewing the album in Living Blues, set a new standard for outrage. "Despite stiff competition," DeKoster wrote, "this may well be the worst blues album ever made."
Burnside doesn't seem to quite recall the recording (he doesn't sound altogether sober on the matter), but says he'd heard the complaints.
"I kinda thought it wouldn't go," he says. "But it's sold more than any recording I put out, so now I think it's all right. We got another one comin' out, and I think we're gonna do another with them after that, the first of the year." His own assessment of Ass Pocket is typically terse and judicious: "I guess folks like it," he says.
Many of Burnside's fans will be pleased to know that he also has another Fat Possum album due out soon, sans Spencer, "with some old blues things" he says are original songs. That's part of Burnside's allure. His darkly beautiful compositions sound like the timeless collective expression of something or someone, too ephemeral, almost, to be written. But such appreciation can quickly lead an avid listener into shaky sociology.
A myth dear to many blues purists holds that the music split in two when Muddy Waters left the Delta for Chicago and plugged in his guitar. He sired nearly all modern blues, the story goes, like a single robin's egg that survived a flood. Meanwhile, a few rustic antediluvian practitioners slumbered down South, waiting to be rediscovered by foraging amateur musicologists.
The truth is messier and more interesting, and Burnside proves it. On the one hand, he breezily dismisses the credible notion that the music from his hill-country pocket of Mississippi is distinct from the sound of the nearby Delta, its cadences stamped by the fife-and-drum bands that were common in the 19th century and that still perform there today.
"The people out in the Delta just smoothed it up and took it to Chicago, but it's all the same thing," Burnside says.
Still, Burnside came up paying close attention to his neighbor Fred McDowell, a magnificent slide guitarist and powerful singer who had little in common with Waters. With McDowell's encouragement, Burnside, a cotton sharecropper, began to jam with the older man at country dances and rent parties. So far, so good. But the problem with the myth above is that it assumes poor black people in the rural South lived in a bubble, and Muddy Waters might as well have been on Jupiter.
On the contrary, Burnside says: When he wasn't jamming with McDowell, he was studying Muddy's records--and John Lee Hooker's, too. During a brief stay in Chicago in '47, Burnside met Waters, who was married to R.L.'s cousin, and Burnside studied the new slide king on Maxwell Street. "I learned to play by watching him do it," he says.
On his first tour, at a '69 blues festival in Montreal, Burnside played what he thought was a tough set, replete with covers of Hooker and Lightnin' Hopkins. He was mortified when he came offstage and found Hopkins and Hooker in the dressing room.
Yet Burnside is his own unreconstructed man, even more primitive than Hooker, who has been known to employ two or three chords to Burnside's typical one. The wonder is that Burnside's effect is anything but monotonous. He uses subtle rhythmic shifts to link the parts of his songs together where many players rely on melody, and in this he is like a one-man James Brown band. He makes rough music, often fueled by corn liquor, yet it repays close attention.
Burnside's influences peep through in flashes, and they are as likely to be McDowell or Hopkins as automatic guns and crack, the big-city evils that have spread southward now. (Burnside is pictured on the cover of Too Bad Jim with his blue-eyed dog Buck. The pet, he says, was killed near his home in a drive-by shooting.) His brew is rural but not bucolic. Palmer likens it to post-relativity physics, which tells us the universe is governed by laws so subtle it only seems chaotic. Burnside is a little drier. "I guess it's just a gift."
Last October, Burnside and Kimbrough played a lamentably ill-attended date at the Rhythm Room on Fat Possum's first showcase tour. A few dozen fans were treated to more than two and a half hours of bewitching, bone-crushing electric blues. You could almost taste the moonshine served in mason jars. It was so deep, it was beyond avant-garde. Jon Spencer would have been a fish out of water that night.
The Fat Possum Mississippi Juke Joint Revue, featuring R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Paul "Wine" Jones, is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, January 1, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 9 p.m.