Perhaps most famous for its recordings of Mississippi hill country blues, Fat Possum is an independent Oxford record label. Though Fat Possum is now home to many independent rock artists, Matthew Johnson and Peter Lee founded the label in 1991 to record the music of older local bluesmen whose work would not have been available to the public. Operating at first with the remainder of his student loan money from his time at the University of Mississippi, Johnson spent time at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint in Holly Springs in the early 1990s and met three people who would shape the record label: musicians R. L. Burnside and Kimbrough and writer and musicologist Robert Palmer. Palmer initially helped Johnson and Lee decide whom to record and often produced recording sessions and wrote liner notes for albums.
Johnson’s first recordings, produced with financial help from John Hermann of the band Widespread Panic, included Burnside, Kimbrough, Cedell Davis, Paul “Wine” Jones, and other Mississippi bluesmen. Fat Possum released a handful of blues albums and a series of compilation discs, Not the Same Old Blues Crap. The label often had trouble meeting expenses and getting its music to the public. In 1994 Fat Possum struck a deal to have Capricorn Records distribute Fat Possum recordings, but the agreement turned sour, and the two labels spent about eighteen months embroiled in a legal battle. Fat Possum declared bankruptcy, incurred nearly a million dollars in debt, and was unable to support its artists. Fat Possum also came under attack from critics for its antipurist stance and its portrayal and marketing of the artists on the label, which occasionally strayed into stereotype, highlighting such aspects of performers’ lives as violence, murder, jail time, and substance abuse.
Fat Possum bounced back in the late 1990s, making a deal with Epitaph Records and releasing Burnside’s critically successful A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, which featured alternative rock musician Jon Spencer from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Other critically acclaimed albums by Kimbrough, T-Model Ford, and Robert Belfour followed. Fat Possum also generated good sales with several albums of Burnside and others’ material remixed with hip-hop beats. However, Johnson and new partner Bruce Watson continued to struggle into the twenty-first century, in part as a consequence of the deaths of many of their artists, including Kimbrough in 1998 and Burnside in 2005. Asie Payton, Charlie Caldwell, and King Ernest died before the label could release their records.
The label’s offices moved to Water Valley for several years before returning to Oxford in 2010. Fat Possum has recently focused on working with indie rock artists, among them the Black Keys, the Heartless Bastards, Paul Westerberg, the Walkmen, Dinosaur Jr., Modest Mouse, and Andrew Bird. They have also pursued one-album recording deals with well-known artists such as Solomon Burke and acquired or licensed back catalogs by Townes Van Zandt, Al Green, and Hi Records as well as George Mitchell’s archival recordings of Furry Lewis and other Mississippi bluesmen. The diverse composition of Fat Possum’s roster has made the formerly blues-based label a favorite among rock fans, critics, and musicians. In 2016 Fat Possum celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary with a series of new and new-to-vinyl blues recordings.
- Michael Dixon, Blues Access (Winter 1997)
- Richard Grant, London Observer (16 November 2003)
- Andrea Lisle, Memphis Flyer (18 December 2001)
- Jay McInerney, New Yorker (4 February 2002)