Thursday, September 01, 2005

OBT: R.L. Bunrside

Bluesman R.L. Burnside dies at 78
Fans didn’t discover the former sharecropper until late in his life
The Associated Press, Updated: 9:46 p.m. ET Sept. 1, 2005

NEW YORK - R.L. Burnside, one of the last, great Mississippi bluesmen, whose raw, country blues was discovered late in his life, has died. He was 78.

Burnside died Thursday morning at the St. Francis Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. His health had been declining for some time, said Matthew Johnson, owner of Burnside’s record label, Fat Possum.

A sharecropper early in life, Burnside wasn’t recorded until his 40s, and didn’t become a professional musician until 1991, when he was signed by Fat Possum. Popular with younger acts like the Beastie Boys and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Burnside remained, as Johnson once said, “incorruptible because he just doesn’t care.”

After the 1992 live album “Bad Luck City,” Fat Possum released “Too Bad Jim” in 1994. Burnside’s raw, John Lee Hooker-style, one-chord progression blues on songs like “Death Bell Blues” and “Shake ’Em on Down” received critical acclaim.

He released over a dozen albums and toured worldwide, though he performed less after heart surgery in 1999. His last record was 2004’s “A Bothered Mind.”

‘He never wanted a career’
Burnside was born in the Mississippi Delta town of Harmontown on Nov. 21, 1926. He spent most of his life in the north Mississippi hills working as a sharecropper and fisherman.

In the 1940s he moved to Chicago where he was taught how to play guitar by Mississippi Fred McDowell and later met Muddy Waters. But Burnside left the city after his father and two of his brothers were killed there.

When Burnside moved back to Mississippi, he shot a man who he said was trying to run him off his home. He was convicted and served six months in jail before a plantation foreman got him out to work the cotton harvest.

“It was between and the Lord, him dyin’,” Burnside said of the murder in a 2002 New Yorker article. “I just shot him in the head.”

Burnside was first recorded in 1968 by folklorist George Mitchell. Though he played locally in Mississippi for decades, he didn’t garner considerable attention until 1991. He was the first act signed to Fat Possum, a label that has since become famous for rejuvenating lost — or previously nonexistent — blues and country careers.

“He was the essential Fat Possum artist,” said Johnson, whose roster also includes Johnny Cash, the Black Keys, T-Model Ford and Solomon Burke. “He was just playing in Junior Kimbrough’s club, not for a career, not for any of that. Just ’cause he wanted to.

“He never really wanted a career, never said he did. We just sort of gave him one.”

Burnside never practiced and never “jumped through hoops” but had “a great attitude,” Johnson added.

Burnside is survived by his wife, Alice Mae, twelve children and numerous grandchildren.