North Mississippi blues guitarist R.L. Burnside's new record, Come on In, features drum programming, loops, samples, and remixes by hip white producers such as Alec Empire, Beal Dabbs, and Tom Rothrock (who is credited as main producer on the recording). It sounds like a collision between Burnside's rural blues drone and every cheap trip-hop/techno production trick in the book (a book that's getting longer and more stuffed with cliches as time goes by). But it's an exciting collision. The overlaid hip-hop beats and drum loops often sound like they are grafted onto R.L.'s minimalist blues trio, but the grafts are done seamlessly for the most part and serve to illustrate just how contemporary Burnside's sound is. And Come on In fits firmly in the tradition of records done by black blues musicians for white-owned and -operated record labels that attempt to "modernize" their artists' sounds with studio effects and a more traditional white-rock aesthetic. That this bastardized approach works so well is something of a shock.
This practice of white record labels attempting to make their black blues talents more interesting or palatable to a younger white record-buying audience can be traced to the late Sixties and albums such as Muddy Waters's Electric Mud and Howlin' Wolf's This Is Howlin' Wolf's New Record and He Doesn't Like It (he certainly wasn't alone), both released on the Chess label. Both emphasized distorted, effects-laden rock guitars and sounded like what they were: blatant attempts to capture a share of the burgeoning rock-album market developing at that time. Chess tried the same approach again in 1971 with somewhat better results by taking Wolf and Waters to London where they each did London Sessions LPs with lots of English rock royalty who could hardly refuse an offer to play with the pair of living legends. At least there weren't any wah-wah guitars, and Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts did play a mean shuffle on the Howlin' Wolf material. Muddy Waters fared better in 1977 when guitarist Johnny Winter played on and produced Hard Again; the band and production were superb, and Waters turned in some of his best performances. Hard Again showed that with a sensitive producer and a great band, this updating approach could work aesthetically and commercially, but it was the exception more than the rule in this genre.
In the Nineties white labels are still recording the blues with a formulaic rock sheen. Most of the Alligator Records catalogue from the Eighties and Nineties sounds essentially like the same record. The only thing that changes from release to release is the artist's name on the cover. That might be stretching it a bit, but Alligator and the various labels that try to serve this contemporary blues market put out plenty of product that sounds all too much alike. Even what's left of the indie label boom of the early Nineties has tried its hand at this sort of thing with varying results. R&B shouter Andre Williams recently teamed with Mick Collins and Dan Kroha from Detroit's late, lamented Gories to record Silky for In the Red. Williams is still writing and singing very blue material (a much more explicit version than what he was doing in the Fifties), and Collins and Kroha are still cranking out their noisy garage blues.
It probably shouldn't sound as good and as natural as it does, but Silky takes the best elements of both Williams and the Gories and molds them into a cohesive but noisy (and nasty) whole. The same can't be said for Burnside's previous collaboration with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, 1996's A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, on Matador, where the worst tendencies of both acts -- R.L.'s penchant for rock-concert-styled boogie and Spencer's "turn it up" obliviousness -- sank the project.
Burnside's label, Fat Possum, has been identified with the northern Mississippi blues sound that was featured in the 1992 documentary Deep Blues, directed by Robert Mugge and narrated by the late rock writer Robert Palmer, who took the audience on a tour of northern Mississippi juke culture. The film included performances by Burnside, Othar Turner's Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, and the late Junior Kimbrough, among others. If a north Mississippi blues sound can be described, it is probably best classified as trance music, a kind of one-chord modal boogie that is not dissimilar to John Lee Hooker's sound in the Fifties. It is also an intensely rural music born of a region that is isolated and full of its own peculiar musical and cultural traditions. There is a fife-and-drum tradition in Tate County that goes back to Revolutionary War times, when slaves played martial beats on borrowed drums and cane fifes at picnics and other social gatherings.
As the years passed the predominantly martial beats took on a much more African sound. In the Eighties at picnics held near Gravel Springs in Tate County one could hear seventysomething fife player Othar Turner or Napoleon Strickland play along with teenagers who were obviously influenced by hip-hop rhythms. R.L. and Junior Kimbrough are the prime exponents of the guitar style that is played in backwoods juke joints (Junior even owned his own club up until his death in 1998), a style that verges on mindless boogie at its worst and minimalist blues perfection at its best. Burnside has acknowledged his stylistic debt to the late Kimbrough, citing him as a primary influence. Well, Junior might have been the originator, but R.L. is the popularizer of a style that begs for a larger audience and Fat Possum is doing what it thinks is best to bring his sound to a wider audience.
But the way they are presenting him and other black artists on the label at times smacks of a hip plantation mentality for the late Nineties. Based in Oxford, Mississippi, and run by Matthew Johnson, Fat Possum has put out a spate of records this decade, mainly by Mississippi bluesmen such as Burnside, Kimbrough, T-Model Ford, Cedell Davis, Elmo Williams, Robert Cage, Paul "Wine" Jones, and Super Chikan (that's right). For the most part they are black, male, at least middle-aged, and connected to the state of Mississippi by either birth or longtime residence there. They all play guitar and sing, some in unique styles: Cedell Davis, who contracted polio when he was a child, now plays slide guitar with a butter knife. And all these Fat Possum musicians are what you would call rough-hewn or rural people. They come across as somewhat unsophisticated, country, or Mississippi, for lack of a better term.
And Matthew Johnson has done quite a job signing and promoting this roster of backwoods bluesmen to a primarily white, young, urban audience. He has managed to make aging, hard-drinking, and hard-working black men into pop artists of a sort. This is quite a feat given that most Fat Possum artists are neither young nor pretty. Some of the promo material, and the artwork on the label's releases, however, seem to cross a line that can slip into the most blatant kind of racial stereotyping. Much is made of R.L.'s numerous drunk driving arrests, T-Model Ford's violent life, and the late Kimbrough's affinity for moonshine and the large number of children he fathered in his lifetime. Some of this mythology is true, but is the fact that certain Fat Possum artists like to drink whiskey enough of a reason (or an excuse) to market them as moonshine-drinking, rural, Ybermen who just wanna get drunk, ball, and play the blues for a mostly white audience? Matthew Johnson is selling records and paying his musicians royalties, helping them attract larger performance fees and audiences than they ever received playing Mississippi juke joints. Is it okay for Fat Possum to use a photograph of T-Model Ford and his drummer Spam goose-stepping in a cotton field if it helps to sell their records and earn them more money? If they don't object to being marketed this way are these somewhat racist images hurting anybody?
Ultimately white record labels and fans license what is hip in blues even though blacks created the form. White fans of the music have constructed a purist image of what blues should be and how a bluesman should conduct himself. And this purist image usually centers on the typically American view of the black man: primitive, spontaneous, impulsive, and violent. An image of black men that would be considered insulting and ridiculous to most people still finds a home in white blues circles, even though the majority of purists would insist that it is simply the sound of the music that they love. But somehow this image of black bluesmen as primal auteurs who live and create purely by instinct always becomes entwined with the music at a point where it is hard to separate the two. So if Fat Possum seems to follow that old familiar pattern of marketing their talents as untutored but gifted rural savants (read "primitive Negroes" who make good dance music) and also releases really interesting and enjoyable records, what is to be made of that? It's a little late in the game to pretend that racism in its various guises can be avoided by a bit of goodwill and decent royalties, but if one enjoys the music on a Fat Possum record, does that make listening to it a guilty pleasure and some kind of racist act? Probably, but the label does put out some damn good sounding records and Come on In happens to be one of their best so far.
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Matthew Johnson of Fat Possum says that Come on In has generated more negative mail than any other release on the label. Most of the outrage is directed at Tom Rothrock's altering and remixing of Burnside's basic tracks: How dare Fat Possum dilute the purity (that "P" word again) of Burnside's sound? It sounds like another take on the Mississippi bluesman as a noble savage whose undiminished and undiluted style must be protected from the greedy and misguided white entrepreneurs who want to "change his sound." But if interviews and Fat Possum press releases can be believed, it was R.L. who approached Rothrock to mix his material after he heard some of the producer's Beck remixes. So if it was Burnside's idea to make this release just what it is, then isn't it rather pointless to shout charges of exploitation at Matthew Johnson and Fat Possum for allowing Rothrock to put a trip-hop/techno stamp on the recording?
It is interesting to note that Rothrock and Beal Dabbs share songwriting credits on several songs with Burnside on this record. Is that just another example of white men stealing writer credits from a black artist, or is it true collaboration in the studio, even if R.L. cut the basic tracks by himself or with his band? You'd probably have to ask Burnside to find out the truth, but this looks and feels more like a collaborative project. The Rothrock touches seem to be part of the whole rather than add-ons after the fact. There is only one true remix on the record: "Heat," done by Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot. Rothrock functions as another band member on most tracks with his programming and mixing. There are even a couple of Rothrock-produced tracks that have no traces of samples or loops, in case any blues purists need reassuring that R.L. can still do it all on his own.
So R.L. Burnside's new record features the work of a white producer who's "hot" at the moment. Does that mean that his new record is somehow inferior? Is there some point at which artists like Burnside, records like Come on In, and potential fans can shed the accompanying racial and cultural double binds and simply enjoy the music for the way it sounds? It's not likely, but you can't help but hope so, because R.L.'s boogie is a pleasure with or without remixes.
R.L. Burnside will be performing Saturday, January 16 at 8:00 at the Chili Pepper (Streets of Mayfair), 3339 Virginia St, Coconut Grove. Robert Cage is the opening act. Tickets are $12. Call 305-442-2228