This is The Turnaround with Rev. Zach Chandler, where, every week, we’ll be breaking down a different aspect of the blues for a deeper understanding of the music, culture, and people that are the blues. For the next several weeks, we’ll be examining some of the most influential bluesmen of the last century to try to understand where the blues comes from. As an art form centered around expression, the personalities around it are part of what makes this music so special.
Last week, we went on a pilgrimage to Chulahoma with Junior Kimbrough.
This week, we’ll shake ‘em on down with R.L. Burnside.
Here’s what we know: R.L Burnside was born November 23, 1926 in Harmontown, Mississippi to Earnest and Josie Burnside. He learned to play the guitar in his teens from his neighbor, Mississippi Fred McDowell.
In his early twenties, he moved to Chicago, where his father had lived since he and Josie had split, as another economic refugee in the Great Migration. He worked in a couple factories and enjoyed the blues scene with Muddy Waters, his cousin-in-law. Chicago, however, took its toll on the Burnside family. Within a year, his father, two uncles, and two of R.L.’s brothers were murdered.
In 1950, he moved back to the Memphis-Northern Mississippi area and married his second wife, Alice Mae. At some point in the Fifties (sources vary), he shot a man over a game of craps. He stated “I didn’t mean to kill nobody. I just meant to shoot the son of a bitch in the head and two times in the chest. Him dying was between him and the Lord.” He was released from Parchman Farm after six months because his boss needed his skills as a tractor driver.
Over the years, he kept several odd jobs sharecropping, fishing, truck driving, and playing the guitar at juke joints, including his own Burnside Palace, picnics and parties. His success was a slow climb. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that he retired from farm work to focus full time on music. He had recorded a few records over the previous decades to little avail. He played the 1982 World’s Fair, the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition, the 1986 San Francisco Blues Festival, and numerous international tours, about once or twice a year. He often played at Junior’s Place, Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint, and the two had a long friendship since about the early ‘80s.
In the early ‘90s, he was featured in the documentary, Deep Blues, and began recording for Fat Possum Records out of Oxford, MS. These recordings are what really sparked Burnside’s rise in prominence. He began touring with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The album A Ass Pocket of Whiskey was recorded with Spencer’s group and had gathered massive critical acclaim. Billboard magazine said that “it sound(s) like no other blues album ever released.” By the late ‘90s, he played with the Beastie Boys and played on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
In 2001, he quit drinking after a doctor advised him to after a heart attack. He did, but reported that he was no longer able to play because of it. His health continued to decline and he had another heart attack in late 2002. Bonnaroo 2004 was his last public appearance. He died in Memphis on September 1, 2005 and he was interred at Free Springs Cemetery in Harmontown, MS. He was survived by his wife, Alice Mae, four daughters, nine sons, three sisters, a brother, 35 grandchildren, and 32 great-grandchildren. Many members of his family continue on the blues tradition, including one son that played in the North Mississippi Allstars, and running several music venues in the Memphis area.
In 2000, he won four W.C. Handy Awards, a Grammy nomination, and, in 2014, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
Style-wise, R.L. Burnside kept to a stripped-down, raw, droning electric hill country blues, singing songs of strife, drinking, fighting, and rebellion. He cited Fred McDowell, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Lightnin’ Hopkins as his main influences. During shows, he would often tell lengthy toasts, folk poems, and jokes between songs.
Get yourself a ass pocket of whiskey, perhaps Bulleit ‘95’ Rye, gather some buds out in the garage, and jam out to the driving, raw incomparable R.L. Burnside.