It’s not hard to imagine seventy-three-year-old bluesman R.L. Burnside kicking ashes up off the floor of some old Mississippi juke joint when you hear his latest Fat Possum album, Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down. Take a listen to “See What My Buddy Done,” and you can almost see the women in their Saturday finest, grinding real slow-like on a make-shift dance floor, getting lower than their poor old knees want to go, stockings slipping further down, pushing up next to some young buck with a Budweiser tall boy he ain’t got no business holding. And there’s old Burnside, holding court with a lopsided grin and a half-empty glass of Bloody Muthafucker (his own concoction of Old Grandad and tomato juice), spinning tall tales and flirting with the ladies. When he gives a wink and launches into “My Eyes Keep Me in Trouble,” you don’t doubt him. This is indeed Mississippi’s finest living emissary of the blues.
But being an emissary of the blues means you can’t spend all your time staying southbound jukin’ it up at house parties. So Burnside takes his act on the road and brings the spirit of those juke joints to blues-starved audiences like the one at a recent sold-out gig at the Village Underground in New York. Far from being out of his element, Burnside is every bit as commanding in a room full of Yankees and Southern transplants as he used to be at the fabled joint his late friend (and Fat Possum label mate) Junior Kimbrough used to run down in Mississippi, before Junior passed on and the club burned down. The only difference is there’s no hip-grinding going on here — the predominately white, hipster crowd (including celebs like Richard Gere and Uma Thurman) prefers to listen in rapt attention to the legend sitting on stage. With a gulp of his modified Muthafucker (Jack stands in for Old Grandad), Burnside wipes his mouth, gives the crowd a wink and shares his wisdom. “I ain’t gonna drink no mo’ after tonight . . . unless I’m by myself or with somebody.” Sure enough, you can take the blues out of Mississippi, but you can’t take Mississippi out of the bluesman.
About the only place Burnside looks out of place is in his tiny room at Manhattan’s Moderne hotel a few hours before the Village Underground gig. With no crowd before him, he’s just a rumpled old man sitting on a tidy bed, staring at the TV, quietly waiting for show time. He sits so still that it’s hard to believe this weary man is out on tour, playing for sold-out clubs across the country. There’s still a twinkle in his eye and a flash of a sweet smile when he begins telling stories about cutting up and getting into trouble in his youth, but time is catching up with him. His ticker and his ear have been giving him fits. He says he can’t walk too far without getting dizzy. “I ain’t going to do but four or five shows at a time,” he says. “I ain’t going to go on tour for two or three weeks like I used to. You need to get rest when you get young like me.”
Burnside first heeded the call of the road as a restless young man in the late Forties, when he left the cotton and corn fields of Mississippi and set out for the big city. “I had to get off the plantation,” he explains. “I just went on up to Chicago and stayed with my daddy and my uncle for a while. I was making a good bit of money, but of course, at that time, it was bad there.”
For a detailed account of Burnside’s time in Chicago, listen to the harrowing “R.L.’s Story,” an honest and raw spoken word track on his new album. Suffice to say, “It was bad there” is an understatement. “I liked it when I was living there,” Burnside elaborates, “but I wouldn’t live there no more cause I had two uncles, two brothers and my father that all got killed.”
On the plus side, Burnside hooked up with his cousin Anna Mae in Chicago and found that she was married to Muddy Waters: “I didn’t know it until I went up there!” Burnside learned to play guitar by watching his neighbor, Mississippi Fred McDowell, play the blues back home, but, listening to Burnside’s past albums, it’s not hard to see that he was influenced just as much by his new cousin-in-law.
When he got back to Mississippi, Burnside took to playing house parties and juke joints across the county on the weekends. “They pay about $15 or $10 for you to play all night,” he says. “Course you get all the whiskey you want!” He specialized in electric guitar, out of personal preference and necessity. “People got so loud ’round the country jukes and house parties that you couldn’t hear an acoustic,” he laughs.
During the Nineties, Burnside ventured even further off the track of traditional acoustic blues. In 1996, when he heard that the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion wanted to record with him, Burnside told the record company he’d do it. “What he’s doing,” laughs Burnside, “It ain’t blues, but he can play that!” The end result was A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, a naughty but nice romp that brought Burnside to the attention of a young, white crowd that hailed him as the new indie-rock god.
“People are just now beginning to realize that the blues is the roots of all the music,” reflects Burnside. “That’s where the music all started from.” And while he garnered praise from a new generation of fans, Burnside took care not to alienate his home crowd with his live show. “People were glad that more people were coming out to the shows,” he says, “but they still want the old blues.”
With a clear nod to his more purist-minded fans, Burnside admits that Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down represents a return to his roots — and a sharp contrast to his last album, the beat-heavy Come On In. But even if it’s a bit more traditional than his other recent output, Burnside shows little sign of slowing down on the album, and he brings on some young whippersnappers to add malt to the old home brew. On “Bad Luck City,” Burnside gets on some sexual healing; his sandpaper falsetto cries in sweet urgency over an unctuous groove, slick enough for Beck’s DJ Swamp to whip up some buttery biscuits from his subtle scratch. Then there’s Burnside’s adopted white son Kenny Brown, who plays guitar on the title track like he’s gutting an Abbeville catfish with an old rusty fishing knife. Throw in a wicked take on “Chain of Fools,” and Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down sounds nothing like the work of a man ready to call it a day. “As long as I’m healthy, I may go on for another four or five years,” vows Burnside. “‘Cause I don’t mind going out and playing as long as I’m feeling good.”
And back at the Village Underground, drink in hand and a room full of adoring fans before him, Burnside looks to be feeling very good indeed. With each long pull from his Bloody Muthafucker, his grin gets more and more lopsided. “Well, well, well,” he says. “I believe there’s a hole in my glass.” However far he may be from Mississippi, as long as he’s on stage, Burnside is on his home turf — and everyone in the room is right at home with him. Because, if you close your eyes and listen hard, you can hear the swish of nylons rubbing together on hot legs, moving in adulation and rhythmic reverie as the screen door slams on another sweltering summer night in Mississippi.