Tuesday, June 23, 2020

For decades, this Mississippi bluesman was mostly unknown

RL Burnside on the cover of his 1998 album, Come On In.  Burnside played music nearly his entire life, but didn't record until his 40s, and didn't find widespread acclaim until the 1990s, when he was already in his 60s.   

Maybe you were a fan of the TV show The Sopranos, during its 7 year run from the late 1990s until the mid 2000s.

I wasn't.

I didn't watch the show until I decided to binge-watch the entire thing, from beginning to end, last winter.  

One thing The Sopranos was known for, was the care they took in choosing the musical background for the various episodes. 

At the end of Season 5, Episode 3 ("Another Toothpick"), this surprising little ditty accompanied the closing credits.  

This is "Shuck Dub," a catchy, surreal techno tune from Delta blues singer and guitar player RL Burnside.  

The song (and the album on which it appears), is a collaboration between he and the producer Tom Rothrock, best known for working with rock musicians like Beck, Moby, Foo Fighters, and Motorhead.  

Burnside was 71 years old when this song was released.  I hadn't heard of him before and became curious about him.  He had a long career, for most of which he was unknown to the wider world outside of rural Mississippi.

Burnside playing at the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee.

A Long Strange Trip

RL Burnside was born in 1926 in Lafayette County, Mississippi.  He began to play harmonica and guitar as a teenager, but didn't play live in public until he was 21 or 22.

He moved to Chicago in the late 1940s, looking for work.  He found jobs in factories, but experienced tragedy.  His father, two brothers, and two uncles were all murdered in the city within the span of one year.

He moved back south and married Alice Mae Taylor in 1949 or 1950, and they remained married the rest of his life.  Sometime around 1950, he murdered a man over a craps game, was convicted, but only spent six months in prison.

Of the murder, Burnside said, "I didn't mean to kill nobody. I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head. Him dying was between him and the Lord."

After that, Burnside spent decades living in remote areas of northern Mississippi, working as a sharecropper, a fisherman, and a truck driver. He also played gigs at local nightclubs, house parties and festivals.

In 1967, music producer George Mitchell traveled through Mississippi, looking for local musicians to record. Burnside's first recordings were made by Mitchell, although they weren't released until years later.

In 1969, he traveled outside the United States for the first time, playing a blues program in Montreal with John Lee Hooker. In 1974, he played at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. His reputation was growing, though he still remained largely unknown.

In 1978, folklorist Alan Lomax videotaped and recorded him for a TV documentary called The Land Where the Blues Began. Little of Burnside actually made it into the film.

This is "See My Jumper Hanging On The Line" from that footage, shot outside of Burnside's house:

Later Life & Fame

During the 1980s, when he was in his 50s, Burnside's career began to pick up dramatically.  His first album appeared on High Water Records in 1981, with his band Burnside's Sound Machine, a blues/funk band that included two of his sons and a son-in-law.

He began to tour Europe, and recorded albums for the Dutch record label Old Swingmaster, and the French label Arion.  He played frequently in New Orleans, and began to appear at major festivals.  By the mid-1980s he retired from farm work, and focused entirely on music.

In 1991, he signed with Oxford, Mississippi-based Fat Possum Records, and during the course of the decade, became their featured act.  This led to a collaboration with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and the critically-acclaimed and commercially successful album A Ass Pocket of Whiskey.

Burnside's newfound success had him opening up for The Beastie Boys, and appearing on The Conan O'Brien Show.  Two of his songs appeared on The Sopranos 

By this time, however, he was already in declining health.  In 1999 he had heart surgery, and a heart attack in 2001 left him unable to tour.  He quit alcohol on doctor's orders, but felt this left him unable to play guitar anymore.  He had a second heart attack in 2002.

He made his last public appearance at the Bonnaroo Festival in 2004, and died of heart disease in 2005 at the age of 78.  He was survived by his wife (died 2008), 13 children, 35 grandchildren, and 32 great-grandchildren.


Above, Burnside in 1978 with his large extended family around him (not everyone looks thrilled to be there).  

The child drummer is possibly his future son-in-law, Calvin Jackson, who played drums on Burnside's Sound Machine recordings in the 1980s.