Thursday, December 27, 2012

R.L. Burnside

In 1996 I went downstairs to the Philadelphia Record Exchange to look at the new releases. This was a weekly ritual; I was passionate about music and, although I didn't have much in the way of money at the time, most of my expenses could be attributed to the art form. I saw "A Ass Pocket of Whiskey"; a curious album with Jon Spencer and an old blues man by the name of R.L. Burnside. I had been a fan of Spencer for sometime and trusted his judgement. So without so much as blinking an eye I laid my precious 10 dollar bill down and took the album upstairs where I lived.

The music that leaped from out of the speakers was raw, distorted and beautifully live; as if taped with a handheld microphone on a porch in the south (which, as it turned out, it practically was). I was a fan of Jon Spencer at the time, and had heard blues legends like Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, but nothing had prepared me for this. This gut-wrenching rhythm bleeding out of the speakers, ripping my heart out of my eardrums. I kept the album on heavy rotation for the rest of the year.

Little did I know this was just a bookend to the long life of a Northern Mississippi blues singer that had spent his years in juke joints throughout the south, trying to make ends meet as a sharecropper and, for a time, a factory worker in Chicago. R.L. Burnside was born in Lafayette County, Mississippi in 1926 and picked up guitar in 1948 after hearing the John Lee Hooker single, "Boogie Chillen." In the late 40's and early 50's he lived in a rough section of Chicago, where he lost his father, two brothers and an uncle in the violence of the era. He returned to the south to raise a family, only to be thrown in jail after killing a man during a game of dice. Burnside later said, "I didn't mean to kill nobody...I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head. Him dying was between him and the Lord." Well, just another example for the need of way-overdue gun control!

After enjoying some fame in the '90's from the indie-scene (thanks in part to Fat Possum Records and Matthew Johnson), R.L. passed away in 2005 from heart failure. I just want to feature some examples of his music I found online. The most striking thing about him is his sense of rhythm. All the pieces featured here showcase him as the sole instrumentation; just vocals and guitar. And yet he carries the whole thing by himself. You can hardly keep your feet still, the rhythm is so infectious. Go, R.L., Go!!!

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