Turning the tables on Burnsideâ??s deep blues 

Not much changes in the Mississippi hill country where blues artist R.L. Burnside resides. He does allow some concessions to the success he's enjoyed during his seven-year career recording for Fat Possum Records. He now carries a cell phone with him at all times when he's not on tour, and he has recently released an album of dance remixes of new and old material titled "Come On In."

Still, he doesn't need a publicist to schedule interviews for him. "Just call him. Here's his number at home," says the person who answers the phone at Fat Possum, the Oxford, Miss., label that released its first record in 1993 -- "Burnside's Bad Luck City."

Burnside had been featured in director Robert Mugge's "Deep Blues," a 1991 documentary that brought international attention to northern Mississippi's previously obscure brand of blues. His career received a further boost when his band -- currently comprised of his grandson Cedric on drums and Kenny Brown on guitar -- toured and subsequently made a recording with indie-rock darlings the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The popularity of the CD "A Ass Pocket Full of Whiskey" (1996) gave Burnside the advantage in his friendly rivalry with labelmate Junior Kimbrough -- a rivalry that came to an end when Kimbrough passed away last January. "That was rough," says Burnside. "People were very upset because he was a good guy."

Burnside played at the memorial jam at Kimbrough's juke joint and tried to shrug off his grief. "It affected him pretty bad," says Cedric. "He tries not to let everything get him down, but you know he was hurt. We had done so many tours with Junior."

Kimbrough's death drew fans from around the world to the region. "People come from overseas -- Japan, Europe -- and they come just to see the club because it's so famous," says Cedric. "I mean, a bus full of them comes to the club and they're like ... man, you think you're in Japan."

A Japanese invasion of a Mississippi town was unthinkable when Burnside first picked up the guitar at 17. He began by soaking up the sound of local legends such as Mississippi Fred McDowell. "I grew up around him," says Burnside. "We used to live pretty close together. ... And I got to meet Muddy Waters. Those guys influenced me." But Burnside also was influenced by the hill-country blues that drew heavily on the fife-and-drum music so popular in his home state. His music is raw blues, often revolving around a single repeated chord or riff and a shouted phrase to produce a trancelike feel. It sounds a world away from the slicked-down Chicago sound that fuels much modern blues.

The music lends itself well to remixing -- a potential recognized by Fat Possum chief Matthew Johnson, who has "been wanting to do something different with this style of blues since we opened up for Jon Spencer," says Cedric. "We started getting a lot of the punk-rock crowd. Just a lot of kids at our shows that really love the blues. ... So I guess he wanted to do something for the younger people."

Johnson enlisted producer Tom Rothrock, who in addition to twiddling the knobs for Beck's "Loser" has produced Elliot Smith and the Foo Fighters. The band recorded in Mississippi and California before turning over the tracks to Rothrock. Burnside warmed up to the finished product quickly. "I just did the album, and then they sent it and had it remixed. I didn't know what it was going to sound like until it came back. But it's selling good."

Burnside is set to go back into the studio in the spring for a new recording, and in the meantime he'll continue to do 10- to 12-day bursts of touring. "If the Lord will give me strength to play for three or four more years, then I'll retire," says Burnside. Until then he will consider himself the most fortunate son of hill-country blues.

More by Matt Kelemen


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