R. L. Burnside (November 23, 1926 – September 1, 2005) was an American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist who lived much of his life in and around Holly Springs, Mississippi.
He played music for much of his life, but did not receive much attention until the early 1990s. In the latter half of the 1990s, Burnside recorded and toured with Jon Spencer, garnering crossover appeal and introducing his music to a new fan base within the punk and garage rock scene.
Burnside was born in 1926 to Earnest Burnside and Josie, in Harmontown, or College Hill, or Blackwater Creek. All of which are in the rural part of Lafayette County, Mississippi, United States, close to the area that would be covered by Sardis lake a few years later. His first name is variously given as R. L., Rl, Robert Lee, Rural, Ruel or Rule.
His father left home early on, and he grew up with his mother, grandparents, and several siblings.
Although he tried the harmonica, then dabbled in guitar playing ever since he was 16, Burnside has reported he first played in public at age 21 or 22.
He learned mostly from Mississippi Fred McDowell, who lived nearby since Burnside was a child. He first heard his playing at age 7 or 8, and eventually joined his gigs to play a late set. Other local teachers were his uncle-in-law Ranie Burnette, who was a popular player from Senatobia, Son Hibbler, Jesse Vortis, and Burnside’s brother-in-law.
Burnside cited church singing and fife and drum picnics as elements of his childhood’s musical landscape, and Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker as influences in adulthood.
In the late 1940s he moved to Chicago, where his father had lived since he separated from his mother, in the hope of finding better economic opportunities.
He did find jobs at metal and glass factories, had the company of Muddy Waters (his cousin-in-law), and enjoyed the modern blues scene at Maxwell Street. But things did not turn out as he had hoped; within the span of one year his father, two brothers, and two uncles were all murdered in the city.
Three years after he came, Burnside went back south, and married Alice Mae Taylor in 1949 or 1950, his second marriage. The 1950s were characterised by circles of relocation between Memphis, Tennessee, the Mississippi Delta and the hill country.
The time in the Delta allowed him to meet bluesmen Robert Lockwood, Jr. and Aleck “Rice” Miller. It seems it was around that time that Burnside killed a man at a craps game, was convicted of murder and incarcerated in Parchman Farm. He would later relate that his boss at the time had arranged to release him after six months, as he needed Burnside’s skills as a tractor driver.
He spent the next 45 years, not unlike his early years, in the Marshall and Tate counties in the north of Mississippi.
At first he kept to particularly remote dwellings, working into the 1980s as a sharecropper growing cotton and soybean, and a commercial fisherman on the Tallahatchie River, selling his catch from door to door. Later he moved closer to Holly Springs.
Since he came back south he picked more local gigs, playing guitar in juke joints and bars (some under his management), picnics and his own open house parties, and an occasional festival. His career boomed in the last twenty years of his life.
His earliest recordings were made in 1967 by George Mitchell, then a graduate student of journalism. He went with his wife to a 13-day summer trip in Mississippi, that resulted in the first recordings of several country blues artists. He came to Burnside’s house near Coldwater on the advice of fife player and maker, Othar Turner.
Mitchell wrote that Fred McDowell likely had not told him about Burnside, because he posed “big-time competition”. Six of the songs, played on an acoustic guitar lent by Mitchell, were released on Arhoolie Records after two years, while nine other are on later products.
Another album of acoustic material was recorded in 1969 for Adelphi Records, not to be released until thirty years later; material from 1975 has had similar fate.
These featured Burnside playing acoustic guitar and singing, and a few tracks had harmonica accompanists, namely W.C. Veasey or Ulysse Red Ramsey. Although not recorded, by that time he already played also on electric guitar.
In 1969 at Montreal, he played for the first time out of the country, in one program with his models Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker.
Three tours of his solo performances found enthusiastic audiences in several European countries.
In 1974 Tav Falco visited and videotaped Burnside in the Brotherhood Sportsmen’s Lodge, a juke joint he ran at the time near Como.
His performance featured the slide guitarist Kenny Brown. Brown was Burnside’s friend and understudy, whom he began tutoring in 1971 and claimed as his “adopted son.”
In 1978 Burnside was filmed by Alan Lomax in what remained mostly outtakes of the Mississippi Authority for Educational Television documentary The Land Where the Blues Began.
A 1979 a series of recordings by David Evans for his record label, High Water, was the first to feature Burnside’s Sound Machine, an accompaniment from family members on drums (Calvin Jackson, son-in-law), bass (Joseph, son) and guitar (Duwayne or Daniel Burnside, sons). The band was active mostly in home settings, but did join Burnside in Europe in 1980 and 1983. They offered a rare fusion of rural and urban blues, funk, RnB and soul, that appealed to young Mississippians.
While an EP by the title Sound Machine Groove was released by Evans’ label in the US, it had next to no distribution. Apart from it, one full album of the same title, a debut of sorts, was licensed for prompt European release by Disques Vogue, and another hour’s worth, was only released by Memphis’ Inside Sounds in 2001.
When he recorded between 1980 and 1986 for the Old Swingmaster label of Netherlands, and for the French label Arion, Burnside went back to play mostly solo, or accompanied by harpists: Johnny Woods served on some occasions, as he also recorded as lead artist with Burnside’s guitar accompaniment; Curtis Salgado served once in a New Orleans session. The results were four more LP releases under his name, in European markets.
In the same decade he retired from farm work and became more busy with the music. For 12-odd years He worked with New Orleans-based harpist Jon (Joni) Morris Neremberg (or Nuremberg), and appeared before American crowds in such occasions as the 1982 World’s Fair, 1984 Louisiana World Exposition, and 1986 San Francisco Blues Festival, between international tours. By the mid-1980s he toured about “once a year or maybe twice”, and by one report of 1985 he had been to Europe 17 times.
Recordings from his time with Morris wound up in two releases, both produced by M.C. Records and Louis X. Erlanger: a session from 1988 as Acoustic Stories, and a 2001 compilation of informal recordings provided by Morris, as Well, Well, Well.
In the late seventies or early eighties Burnside was introduced and struck a partnership with Junior Kimbrough.
Roughly a decade later, his own “Burnside Palace” had shut down and the family lived next to the Kimbroughs’ new “Junior’s Place” in Chulahoma, Mississippi and collaborated with the counterpart musical family.
Music writer Robert Palmer, teaching for a time in the University of Mississippi in Oxford, frequented the scene with some celebrity musicians, which led to the making in 1990 of a documentary that featured Burnside prominently, Deep Blues.
Burnside began recording for the Oxford, Mississippi label, Fat Possum Records in 1991. The label, dedicated to recording aging North Mississippi bluesmen such as Burnside and Kimbrough, was founded by two students who have been catching the elders’ performances for some years – Living Blues magazine editor Peter Redvers-Lee and a writer there, Matthew Johnson.
Burnside remained with Fat Possum from that time until his death.
Their first output was Bad Luck City (1992), featuring The Sound Machine.
The next, Too Bad Jim (1994), was recorded at Junior’s Place, produced by Palmer and had support from Calvin Jackson and Kenny Brown. After Jackson moved to Holland, Burnside found a new stable band and would usually perform with Brown and drummer Cedric Burnside, his grandson.
In a New York concert around the release of Deep Blues, he attracted the attention of Jon Spencer, the leader of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. He started touring with this group in 1995, both as an opening act and sitting in, gaining much new audience.
The 1996 album A Ass Pocket of Whiskey was recorded with Jon Spencer’ band and was marketed for their audience, but was credited to Burnside.
It gained critical acclaim and praise from Bono and Iggy Pop; while Billboard wrote “it sound like no other blues album ever released” and an author there picked it to year’s end critics’ poll, Living Blues opined it is “perhaps the worst blues album ever made.”
After parting ways with the Blues Explosion, the label turned to produce music in which recorded materials were remixed by producer Tom Rothrock with an eye to techno, downtempo and hip-hop listeners.
The experiment started with a track in Mr. Wizard (1997), an album based on a variety of sessions, and matured into a full album with Come On In (1998).
The recording artists themselves heard only the final product, but they conceded that with time they came to like it, in part influenced by its popularity.
Burnside continued to tour, perhaps more extensively than ever. A 1999 date in Paris’ “New Morning”, with Brown and Cedric, was the occasion for filming a 52 minutes documentary by French blues singer Sophie Kay (Kertesz).
He warmed for the Beastie Boys, was musical guest in Late Night with Conan O’Brien and HBO’s Reverb, provided entertainment at private events such as Richard Gere’s birthday party, and participated in shared or showcase bills with other Fat Possum artists, like T-Model Ford, Paul “Wine” Jones, CeDell Davis, Robert Cage and Robert Belfour.
An influx of visitors and young musicians were attracted to Junior’s Place, but it burned down in 2000.
In short time, however, Burnside was in declining health. He had an ear infection and underwent a heart surgery in 1999. As his tours decreased to a minimum, Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down (2000) was released, which relegated guitar work to other players (Rick Holmstrom, Smokey Hormel, John Porter) but used Burnside’s vocals.
After a heart attack in 2001, his doctor advised him to stop drinking; Burnside did, but he reported that change left him unable to play. Fat Possum rebounded with A Bothered Mind (2004), an album that used previously recorded guitar tracks, and included collaborations with Kid Rock and Lyrics Born.
The three remix albums received mixed reviews, some describing the results as “unnatural” while others lauded the playful spirit, or “the way it yokes authentic blues feeling to new technology”.
Commercially, the remixes were successful; each surpassed its previous in Billboard’s Top Blues Albums chart, as they stayed there for 12–18 weeks’ periods (but none entered into the more competitive Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs), and two tracks from Come On In were included in The Sopranos ’ soundtrack.
“Let My Baby Ride” off Come On In received significant airplay and an ensuing music clip was slotted in MTV’s 120 Minutes; the album’s “Rollin’ & Tumblin'” accompanied a 2002 Nissan TV commercial. But it was the live, unremixed album Burnside on Burnside (2001) that peaked at number 4 of Billboard’s Blues Albums chart and was nominated for a Grammy.
the last article to catch Burnside as an active bandleader, recorded in January 2001 with Brown and Cedric.
In between, Fat Possum licensed and released First Recording (2003), comprising George Mitchell’s 1967 recordings in its fullest edition yet, in traditional format. In addition, the 1990s and 2000s saw release of several recordings from previous decades by other labels (see above), as well as a couple of new recordings by HighTone Records.
Another heart attack in November 2002 resulted in a surgery in 2003, and sealed any career plans he had, though he continued as guest singer on occasions, such as Bonnaroo Music Festival, 2004, his last public appearance.
He died at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee on September 1, 2005 at the age of 78.
Services were held at Rust College in Holly Springs, with burial in the Free Springs Cemetery in Harmontown.
Around the time of his death, he resided in Byhalia, Mississippi and his immediate survivors included:
His wife: Alice Mae Taylor Burnside (1932-2008), married 1949;
Daughters: Mildred Jean Burnside (1949-2010), Linda Jackson, Brenda Kay Brooks, and Pamela Denise Burnside;
Sons: Melvin Burnside, R.L. Burnside Jr. (1954-2010), Calvin Burnside, Joseph Burnside, Daniel Burnside,
Duwayne Burnside, Dexter Burnside, Garry Burnside, and Rodger Harmon
Sisters: Lucille Burnside, Verelan Burnside, and Mat Burnside
Brother: Jesse Monia
Members of his large extended family continue to play blues in the Holly Springs area or in wider circles. Son Duwayne Burnside has played guitar with the North Mississippi Allstars (Polaris; Hill Country Revue with R. L. Burnside).
He has operated a row of music venues named after Burnside and Alice Mae: in Chulahoma and Memphis,Waterford,and Holly Springs. Grandson Cedric Burnside has released six albums with four musical partners, and toured with Kenny Brown and others.
Son Garry Burnside used to play bass guitar with Junior Kimbrough, North Mississippi Allstars, and Hill Country Revue; in 2006 he released an album with Cedric.
Son in law Calvin Jackson (died 2015) recorded with blues musicians of Burnside’s generation and younger.
Grandson Kent is a musician, as was Cody (died 2012). Kenny Brown has released four albums and toured with the family and his own band.
Burnside won one W. C. Handy Award in 2000 (Traditional Blues Male Artist of The Year), two in 2002 (Traditional Blues Male Artist of The Year; Traditional Blues Album of The Year: Burnside on Burnside),and one in 2003 (Traditional Blues Male Artist of The Year); he had 11 unsuccessful nominations in 8 years for the awards, starting in 1982, as well as one for a Grammy.
Several of the Mississippi Blues Trail markers, which have been erected since 2006, mention him. In 2014 he was induced to the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis.
Burnside’s fellow Fat Possum musicians The Black Keys also credit him as an influence and interpolated his “Skinny Woman” into their track “Busted”.
Electronica musician St. Germain used samples of Burnside’s “Nightmare Blues” throughout the track “How Dare You” of his 2015 album.
Burnside had a powerful, expressive voice, that did not fail with old age but rather grew richer, and played both electric and acoustic guitar, with and without a slide. His drone-heavy style was more characteristic of North Mississippi hill country blues than Delta blues.
Like other country blues musicians, he did not always adhere to strict 12- or 16-bar blues patterns, often adding extra beats to a measure as he saw fit. His rhythms are often based on the fife and drum blues of north Mississippi.
As was the case with his role model John Lee Hooker, Burnside’s earliest recordings sound quite similar to one another, even repetitive, in vocal and instrumental styling. Many of these songs eschew traditional chord changes in favor of a single chord or a simple bassline pattern that repeats throughout. Burnside played the guitar fingerstyle—without a pick—and often in open-G tuning. His vocal style is characterized by a tendency to “break” briefly into falsetto, usually at the end of long notes.
Like his contemporary T-Model Ford, Burnside favored a stripped-down approach to the blues, marked by a quality of rawness.
He and his later managers and reviewers maintained his persona as a hard-working man leading a life of struggle, a heavy drinker, latent criminal singing songs of swagger and rebellion.
Burnside knew many toasts—African American narrative folk poems such as “Signifying monkey” and “Tojo Told Hitler”—and fondly recited them between songs at his concerts and on recordings.
He narrated long jokes in concerts and social events, and many sources noted his quick wit and charisma.