Moaning in Mississippi
There's a lot to like about the version of "Tramp" recorded in 1967 by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. The song was a hit that same year for its originator Lowell Fulson, a journeyman guitarist and singer who to this day still stands in the immense shadow of B.B. King. Mildly slinky in its original state, with a sly and dry vocal by Fulson boasting of his backwoods upbringing, his "Tramp" lacks the drama of the one cut by Otis and Carla, not to mention the rhythmic firepower of the Stax house band burning behind them. When Otis and Carla tackled the song -- the centerpiece of their excellent King and Queen album -- they dismantled it, pulling what they wanted from Fulson's lyric and recasting it as a biting, hilarious bit of social and sexual politics, with Carla playing the sneering uptown sophisticate to Otis's proud Southern hayseed. The key moment in the song arrives early, with the pair -- Carla, mostly -- riffing over drummer Al Jackson's fat soul groove. Carla: "You know what Otis? You're country!" Otis: "That's all right!" Carla: "You're straight from the Georgia woods." Otis: "That's good!" And after establishing his geographic credentials, Otis nails the essence of his bad self with the shouting chant, "I'm a lover," to which Carla can only acquiesce and, no doubt, attest.
R.L. Burnside is country too, and equally proud of it. And his music -- lacerating blues -- is a pure distillation of his rural roots and Southern heritage. He is at once a throwback to the primal, prewar Delta blues of Son House and Fred McDowell and the living embodiment of that tradition, an ambassador of the music's vitality right here in 1997. Born about 60 years ago in Lafayette County in the hill country of north Mississippi, Burnside has been playing the blues since he was in his late teens, learning guitar licks directly from McDowell, a neighbor. Burnside didn't find his way into a recording studio until the mid-Eighties, when he cut a single for a college-funded label in Memphis and two longplayers for Swingmaster in Europe.
The best songs on those sets -- "Snake Drive" and "Jumper on the Line" -- were droning, meditative, built not around the usual twelve-bar framework of the blues but on Burnside's idiosyncratic, dirgelike rhythms and his intensely personal vocals. They were seemingly anomalous for their time, a time when big-shot labels such as Alligator Records in Chicago were squeegeeing the blood from the blues, burying the music in layers of synthesizers and drum machines -- production values that had more to do with mainstream rock circa 1985 than the gutbucket ambiance of a vintage John Lee Hooker session.
Although they hark back to a bygone era, Burnside's first recordings were simply the sound of the blues as it was being played in the roadhouses and juke joints that dot the poverty-stricken farm country of Mississippi. There the music, much like the standard of living, has hardly changed in the decades following the post-World War II exodus of black Southerners to cities like Chicago and Detroit. Likewise, the albums Burnside has cut most recently for the Fat Possum label in Oxford are neither throwbacks nor time-freezing exercises in nostalgia. Rather, they are documents of the blues as Burnside plays them -- loose, ragged, guitar slicing through the fatback rhythms, his booming voice offering retooled takes on the verities of McDowell, Robert Johnson, and Howlin' Wolf. It's the kind of stuff you still hear today throughout the mid-South in neighborhood bars, roadside dives, and country juke joints like the one in Chulahoma, Mississippi, run by Burnside's contemporary and Fat Possum labelmate Junior Kimbrough (where Burnside's Too Bad Jim album was cut).
Burnside's music is tough and visceral, full of raw emotion and live-wire intensity, recorded warts and all by writer, producer, and blues authority Robert Palmer. On his three Fat Possum releases -- 1991's Bad Luck City, Too Bad Jim from '94, and the just-issued, aptly titled Mr. Wizard -- Burnside interprets classics from the past ("Shake 'Em on Down," "You Gotta Move," "Born Under a Bad Sign," "Boogie Chillun"), mines the fertile soil of Southern soul ("Talking About the Ghetto," "Patches"), and brings his own unique and poetic observations to the mix ("Bad Luck City," "Jumper on the Line"). Recording most often with drummer Calvin Jackson, his son Dwayne on bass, and guitarist Kenny Brown, Burnside conjures a sound and style that bridges the acoustic Delta blues of the Twenties and Thirties with the electric wallop of postwar innovators from Muddy Waters to Howlin' Wolf.
How strong is Burnside's sound? Strong enough to withstand the meddling and tinkering of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, an art-damaged, blues-crazed trio from New York who backed Burnside on last year's surprisingly successful A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (a few leftovers from which, by the way, made their way on to the new Mr. Wizard). Amid the theramin squiggles and mangy punk guitars and Spencer's ceaseless interjections, Burnside's personality and dignity cut through the racket and dominate the sound just as surely as Burnside dominates the current blues scene.
Which isn't to say that Burnside is the only artist today banging out this kind of unfettered electric blues. On his own pair of Fat Possum discs (Sad Days, Lonely Nights and All Night Long), Burnside's friend Junior Kimbrough has perfected a style of guitar playing that combines the hypnotic, trancelike work of John Lee Hooker with a modal, almost free-jazz approach to tone, texture, and rhythm -- the sort of boogie drone that can wander for nearly ten minutes with nary a wasted note. The recently released The Best of Fat Possum compiles some of Kimbrough's best work as well as a pair of previously unreleased cuts from Burnside ("Georgia Woman" and a new recording of "Snake Drive") and astonishingly intimate but decidedly loud offerings from Cedell Davis, Dave Thompson, and the Jelly Roll Kings. The Kings -- a trio led by former Sun bluesman Frank Frost -- have a blistering and raucous new album out on Fat Possum called Off Yonder Wall that spans the gamut of drinking songs, screwing songs, and the best song about fishing you'll ever hear.
Even beyond Mississippi, the blues, as Little Milton likes to put it, seems all right. In Chicago, Brewer Phillips is rocking around the South Side with a quartet that, judging from the hell-fire raunch of its Delmark album Homebrew, has channeled the spirit of Phillips's late boss, the great Hound Dog Taylor. Out on the West Coast, legendary piano man Floyd Dixon recently recorded a career-defining set (Wake Up and Live!) that effectively updates the jump blues style he perfected in the early Fifties with hits such as "Telephone Blues" and "Hey Bartender." Chicago blues vet Snooky Pryor -- one of the greatest harmonica players alive -- has resurfaced on the Austin-based Antone's label with the fine Mind Your Own Business, and Windy City drummer/vocalist Sam Lay (sideman for Howlin' Wolf and Paul Butterfield, among others) brings his humongous voice and big-beat groove to Stone Blues, issued awhile back on the Evidence label.
Tally those records up, add to the total the riveting acoustic-blues sets by newcomers Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and 'Keb 'Mo, and you've got not a revival of the music but proof of its vibrance and purpose. A golden era, if you will.
R.L. Burnside performs Friday, April 4, at Stella Blue, 1661 Meridian Ave, Miami Beach; 532-4788. Showtime is 11:00 p.m. Cover charge is $12.
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