Black Blues, White Label

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.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ross Johnson

Latest Stories