Blues breaker

By more than one account, Come On In (Fat Possum/Epitaph Records, 1998) has already enraged (or at least confused) a host of blues purists. R.L. Burnside’s latest release is nothing less than a series of dance remixes, featuring the 71-year-old Mississippi native’s boiling, elemental blues chopped up and wantonly married to hip-hop beats and a drum machine.

This head-scratching union, wrought by producer/Bongload Records owner Tom Rothrock (of Beck fame), is not as dubious a coupling as it initially sounds, however. The grinding brand of blues spawned in Mississippi’s hill country is traditionally more repetitive (it’s been described as “trance-blues”) and rhythmic than the Delta sound, and carries way more attitude than anything that’s glided out of Chicago recently — all of which makes this comparatively ignored slice of the genre at least a credible partner for dance music.

Not that Burnside is bothering himself giving explanations. In a recent phone interview (“I don’t mind talking, as long as you don’t talk too long,” was his greeting), he matter-of-factly discussed the new record.

Despite press material that would have you believe otherwise, Burnside freely admits, “[The hip-hop sound] was the record company’s idea; they had it remixed. I just did the blues part.” But the inimitable bluesman claims to be pleased with the outcome, at least financially:

“I didn’t know what it was going to be like, but it’s been selling good,” he says, adding (with a barely smothered laugh), “A lot of people don’t like it at first, you know, but then they begin to get used to it.”

One gathers from his tone that horrifying tried-and-true fans with this kind of “blasphemy” was more an incentive than an obstacle to making Come On In — a merry kick in the butt to those who’d dare presume they know what to expect from R.L. Burnside.

He grew up playing house and field parties and, like many aspiring bluesmen of his generation, left Mississippi for Chicago in the 1940s, where he was exposed to the electric blues through associations with Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. Within two years, though, he was back in Mississippi. There, Burnside continued to farm and play guitar.

In the ’60s, he was recorded by some blues archivists; but it took another 20 years before his career picked up again.

In the late ’80s, Burnside was asked to play a number of international blues festivals. A few years later, he was featured (together with his longtime neighbor, juke-joint owner Junior Kimbrough) in Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues documentary. Around the same time, Burnside was discovered by Fat Possum Records, a struggling Oxford, Miss., label dedicated solely to reviving the careers of hill-country bluesmen like Burnside and Robert Cage (who’ll open for Burnside at his upcoming Asheville show). In 1994, Burnside released Too Bad Jim on the Fat Possum label, deemed a work of “historic import” by Time magazine.

Soon afterward, Burnside began touring with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion; the unlikely pairing with the poster-boy-pretty (and multitalented) Spencer and his group of raucous rockers produced 1996’s A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (Matador) — a down-and-dirty, gloriously tangled collaboration responsible for securing the septuagenarian a legion of new fans.

“I like having young fans,” says Burnside, “because they’ve just now begun to realize that blues is the roots of all music. It took a long time, because rock ‘n’ roll came along and people starting making some money. But all music started from the blues.”

Burnside still enjoys touring — within limits. “I don’t mind staying away for 10 or 15 days, but I haven’t been touring this month,” he notes, adding, “I don’t like to be away from home too long.” And Burnside prefers traveling with his own band (which features his grandson, Cedric Burnside, on drums) to touring with the Blues Explosion.

“I prefer going out and doing it by myself, but touring with Jon Spencer meant a lot more young people coming to the show,” he admits.

If his 1997 Bele Chere appearance and his last two shows at Be Here Now are any indication, though, he’s doing just fine on his own. And for those who were hoping his newest release would be more like 1997’s blues-soaked Mr. Wizard (Fat Possum/Epitaph), take heart: “We’re going to try to figure out a blues album for the next one,” he promises.

Burnside isn’t bitter about his 11th-hour success, pointing out modestly, “I never thought when I started that I’d be able to make any records at all.”

Burnside’s live performances don’t require any kind of unnatural additives to set people dancing, either — the only thing he mixes with his songs is enough crowd-pleasing, bawdy tales to keep retirement safely at bay.

“I’ll be doing it another four or five years,” he forecasts hopefully, “as long as the Lord is willing and I keep my head.”

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