R.L. Burnside Biography

23 November 1926, Harmontown, Mississippi, USA, d. 1 September 2005, Memphis, Tennessee, USA. Burnside, ‘Rule’ to his friends, was a keen observer of his neighbour Mississippi Fred McDowell, as well as Son Hibler and Ranie Burnett, and learned from them the modal rhythm-based techniques of the north Mississippi blues. To these he added songs by Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins heard on the radio. Prior to taking up the guitar, he had moved to Chicago in the late 40s, where he worked in a foundry and witnessed Muddy Waters’ music first-hand. In 1950 he returned south and spent the ensuing years doing farm-work by day and playing jukes and house parties at weekends. He was discovered and recorded in 1967 by George Mitchell, and after the release of Mississippi Delta Blues, was in demand to appear at festivals in North America and Europe. As well as performing solo, Burnside also led the Sound Machine, a band that featured various members of his large family on guitar and bass, and son-in-law Calvin Jackson on drums.

Burnside’s revival in his native country during the 90s was thanks in part to the work of Fat Possum Records, and Burnside’s indefatigable enthusiasm for playing dirty Delta juke blues. His debut for Fat Possum, 1991’s Bad Luck City, featured sons Dwayne and Joseph assisting on a wide range of contemporary material, and was representative of a typical set played at local clubs such as Junior Kimbrough’s at Chulahoma. 1994’s Too Bad Jim was recorded there, in part, and comprised songs played in the older, modal tradition with pupil Kenny Brown on second guitar. These latter recordings proved the enduring strength of Mississippi blues as well as Burnside’s eminence as a stirring performer of its intricacies. The 1996 Matador Records set A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey, recorded with rootsy punksters the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, helped gain Burnside hip credibility. Burnside followed up this breakthrough album with several more sets for Fat Possum, although heart surgery in 1999 reduced his schedule to a minimum. Burnside passed away in September 2005.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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