In the early 1990s R. L. Burnside became an unlikely star of the blues world, largely the result of a unique marketing strategy employed by his label, Oxford-based Fat Possum Records. He was born on 23 November 1926 in Harmontown, Mississippi, north of Oxford, and from age seven to seventeen lived in Coldwater with his mother and maternal grandparents. His given name appears to have been R. L.; his friends often called him Rule or Rural. He began playing guitar as a young man after receiving an instrument from his brother-in-law. His major influence was the Como-based bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell, who popularized the distinctive North Mississippi style of blues during the 1960s blues revival. Other local influences were Ranie Burnette and Son Hibler.
Shortly after World War II Burnside moved to Chicago, where he often saw performances by Muddy Waters, whose slide guitar technique Burnside adopted. He found Chicago too rough for his taste and soon moved back to Mississippi, where he met his wife, Alice Mae, with whom he was married for more than fifty years. For much of his adult life Burnside was a cotton sharecropper, drove farm machinery, and worked with commercial fishing; he played music mostly on the weekends.
During the 1950s he served briefly at the Parchman Penitentiary. In a 1994 account he suggested that his prison sentence was associated with transporting stolen goods; he later said it was for manslaughter committed in self-defense, and he often joked, “I didn’t mean to kill him. I just shot him in the head. His dying was between him and his God.” Burnside was famously good-natured and a master storyteller: several of his “toasts” were captured on record.
In 1967–68 folklorist George Mitchell, who was documenting the distinctive musical styles of North Mississippi, recorded Burnside as well other local artists, including Jessie Mae (Hemphill) Brooks, Joe Callicot, and Othar Turner. Six of Mitchell’s recordings of Burnside, including repertoire staples “Poor Black Mattie,” “Goin’ Down South,” and “Long Haired Doney,” appeared on the 1969 Arhoolie compilation album Mississippi Delta Blues, vol. 2.
In the wake of the Arhoolie release Burnside began appearing at music festivals, but over the next several decades he received relatively little attention in blues circles aside from occasional small tours performed mostly locally and appearances at juke joints run by fellow Marshall County bluesman David “Junior” Kimbrough and in the company of guitarist and Nesbit native Kenny Brown.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s Burnside recorded two acoustic albums for the Dutch Swingmaster label and a single with the electric Sound Machine band—which included his sons, Joseph and Daniel, and son-in-law, Calvin Jackson—for folklorist David Evans’s High Water label. Two full CDs of the High Water recordings, Sound Machine Groove and Raw Electric, were issued many years later.
In the early 1990s Peter Lee, former editor of Living Blues magazine, and Mathew Johnson formed the Oxford-based Fat Possum Records, whose first release was the 1992 Burnside CD Bad Luck City. Burnside’s live band sound was more accurately captured on the 1994 Fat Possum CD Too Bad Jim, which was recorded at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint in Chulahoma. Music scholar and critic Robert Palmer produced both CDs and narrated the 1993 documentary Deep Blues, which helped bring broader attention to Burnside, Kimbrough, and other North Mississippi musicians.
Burnside’s first two Fat Possum CDs were well received by critics but sold poorly. On the 1996 CD A Ass Pocket of Whiskey Fat Possum embarked on a new marketing strategy by teaming Burnside with the alternative band Jon Spencer and the Blues Explosion and various outside producers who utilized modern technologies such as sampling and looping. The album—and Fat Possum’s marketing of Burnside and other acts as primitives with chaotic lifestyles—introduced Burnside to alternative rock circles. At the same time he began appearing as a headliner at international blues festivals, performing with Kenny Brown on second guitar and his young grandson, Cedric Burnside, on drums.
Fat Possum also utilized the remix approach on the CDs Mr. Wizard (1997) and Come on In (1998); a remixed version of the blues standard Rollin’ and Tumblin’ from the latter was featured often in the opening credits of The Sopranos. The various studio innovations were not reflected in Burnside’s live sound, which was captured on the Fat Possum CD Burnside on Burnside (2001). Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down (2000) and Bothered Mind (2004) mixed Burnside’s “regular” sound and the remixes of outside producers.
In the early 2000s Burnside began suffering from various health problems that kept him from touring regularly. He died on 1 September 2005 and was buried in Harmontown. Many family members, including his sons, Duwayne and Garry; grandson, Cedric; and his “adopted” son, Kenny Brown, have carried on his legacy through recordings and live performances.
- David Evans, Sound Machine Groove (1997)
- Tom Freeland, Living Blues (November–December 2005)
- Michael Pettengell, Living Blues (October 1994)