Deep South: R. L. Burnside
Bluesman R.L. Burnside is definitely an acquired taste: when he was alive and stompin’, R.L. was as raw and rowdy as the Mississippi juke joints he played in most of his life. But he remains one of America’s purest bluesmen, one who ought to be ranked alongside greats like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
Burnside played music since the 1960s, but nobody really paid attention until 30 years later. Certainly it was the album A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (1996), recorded with white-boy blues revisionist Jon Spencer and his Blues Explosion, that made R. L. go nationwide. The music on Ass Pocket is hilariously profane and unpolished to the point that calling it “lo-fi” might be a stretch. With Spencer howling in the background, Burnside yells the blues like one bad mother***er, which incidentally is a word he uses often on this album.
When we finally got to see R. L. play live, on a cool winter night in 2000, he didn’t drop the “mf” bomb once. By that time, one supposes, R. L. was trying to clean up his act. He told a few stories between songs, but they weren’t as wildly nasty as the “toasts” he committed to tape for Ass Pocket. Many people’s favorite was “The Criminal Inside Me,” which begins as a “Signifying Monkey” kind of story then spins wildly out of control as Spencer and R. L. scream at each other. Classic!
But live as on record, R. L. could play the blues. He had with him a great slide guitar player Kenny Brown, and his grandson Cedric Burnside was a monster on the drums. I couldn’t tell you the titles of most of the tunes R. L. played that night; most were just obscure blues tunes he most likely pulled out of his ass pocket on the spur of the moment. He used his trademark saying “Well well well” sparingly, drawing a huge cheer whenever he did so.
R. L. got limited mainstream success; his remixed song “It’s Bad You Know” appeared on “The Sopranos” in 1999 or so and his 2001 live album Burnside on Burnside was critically acclaimed and a modest hit.
Even as R. L. got more popular, he was in the twilight of his life. After a heart attack in 2001 he tried to stop drinking but found he couldn’t play as well. His health problems limited his touring, and finally R. L. died in 2005 at the age of 78.