Born: November 23, 1926 | Died: September 1, 2005 Primary Instrument: Guitar
R.L. Burnside - Blues Singer, guitarist (1926 - 2005)
Hailing from the hill country of northern Mississippi, R.L. Burnside was a genuine exponent of the droning, rhythmic guitar style characterized by its vigorous performance.
R.L. Burnside was born in Layfayette County, near Oxford, Mississippi in 1926. As a young man R.L. moved North into the neighboring Marshall County and began sharecropping. Inspired by John Lee Hooker's '50s hit Boogie Chillun', R.L. began singing blues and playing guitar. In addition to the Hooker 45 rpm there were other local forces that influenced R.L as well, such as Mississippi Fred McDowell and Ranie Burnette.
Fed up with the hopelessness of sharecropping, Burnside migrated to Chicago in hopes of finding economic opportunity. Chicago did not work out. In the span of one month R.L.'s father, brother and uncle were murdered. Around 1959 he returned to Mississippi to again work the farms and raise a family. He also started to play music at night and on weekends.
R.L.'s first recordings appeared on a 1967 Arhoolie compilation. Although R.L. preferred electric guitar, the fashion of the day dictated that he be recorded acoustically. These recordings earned Burnside enough of a reputation to play festivals and tours at home and abroad. Throughout the '70s and '80s R.L. played with a family band consisting of sons Joseph and Daniel as well as son-in-law Calvin Jackson, known as the Sound Machine. Though a local favorite, R.L. and the Sound Machine were barely known outside of North Mississippi.
This all began to change for R.L. in the early '90s when the documentary film based on author Robert Palmer's book Deep Blues featured R.L. as one of its highlights. Subsequently Palmer produced R.L.'s “Too Bad Jim” for the fledgling Fat Possum label. Along with Junior Kimbrough's “All Night Long,” “Too Bad Jim” was one of the most important and influential blues albums of the '90s.
“Too Bad Jim” brought R.L. to the attention of post-punk musician Jon Spencer. R.L. toured extensively with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and this led to the collaboration between the two, the result was “A Ass Pocket of Whiskey,” a teenage party record. “Ass Pocket of Whiskey” made R.L an unlikely champion in the indie rock world.
In 1997 R.L. released “Mr. Wizard,” Fat Possum's debut record on their new distribution label Epitaph. The album featured R.L's hardcore touring mates, grandson Cedric Burnside and adopted son Kenny Brown.
In 1998 R.L. released “Come On In,” which pitted his raw blues against modern electronica, courtesy of producer Tom Rothrock (Beck, Elliot Smith). The album was a critical and commercial success, and one of its tracks, It's Bad You Know, became a respectable radio hit and was featured in The Sopranos and on its soundtrack.
By the year 2000 R.L. Burnside was still breaking down boundaries, and bringing the blues to where it's never gone before. His release of “Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down,” was a bit overboard in its production scope and had a tendency to water down his attributes.
This was all forgotten by the 2001 live album “Burnside On Burnside,” which showcased the bluesman with a small band displaying his unique style of blues the way it should be played, considered his best effort.