Two of the three headliners on Fat Possum Records’ current Juke Joint Caravan tour are grandfathers many times over (“I’d need a computer to figure out how many grandkids I have,” notes R.L. Burnside with a big laugh). But the blues they deliver is not your grandpa’s kind of music — unless he happens to have killed a man in his youth, names corn liquor as his tried-and-true muse, and plays gut-bucket electric guitar with a sweaty grind that begs you to drop what you’re doing and make crazed love to whoever’s handy. And if your vision of bliss is making love in a sodden Mississippi shack with a shotgun to your head and bad luck yapping at your ass like a one-eyed, rabid dog, then this crew is definitely for you.
These three acts — 71-year-old Burnside, 77-year-old T-Model Ford (who performs with drummer Spam) and the baby of the bunch, the 50-something Paul “Wine” Jones (accompanied by drummer Pickle) — are the lifeblood of the feisty little Oxford, Miss., record label, which takes pride in unleashing crude, primitive, backwoods blues on an unsuspecting (but increasingly appreciative) public. Oxford native Matthew Johnson — described by Spin magazine as “pale, skinny, disheveled, missing half a lung, at war with his liver, nurturing two patched-up hernias and 14 tooth cavities [and constantly] calling for a sixth vodka-and-water” — launched Fat Possum eight years ago, with $4,000 worth of student-loan money and the encouragement of Living Blues magazine editor Peter Lee. Burnside’s Bad Luck City was the company’s maiden effort, but with no money for promotion, it sold a mere 713 copies in the first year. That set the pattern for the devastating financial troubles that have plagued the company ever since. Part of the problem, notes Johnson, is that many of the artists on Fat Possum’s skinny roster can neither read nor write and don’t hold valid drivers’ licenses — making the always-daunting logistics of touring and industry networking all the more difficult. Several of the label’s musicians still live at or near the poverty level, in the same ramshackle houses they’ve inhabited for decades, their dirt yards junk-car wastelands. “My guys come from the poorest, no-hope hellholes in America, which is why their music is so powerful,” Johnson once said.
“We’re trying our best” is the label’s oft-repeated motto. Fat Possum has been within hours of going under, according to one source, six or seven times. But its recent distribution deal with the L.A.-based Epitaph Records — known as a predominantly punk outfit — has resulted in a solid cash boost and, so far, no discernible compromise in the raw, ass-whuppin’ quality of the music. As Johnson once put it: “None of my guys are virtuoso guitar players or singers. They howl and scream like a great big human soul moaning out its pain and craziness.” (Fat Possum’s best-known, and arguably most technically gifted, artist — Junior Kimbrough, often called the spiritual patriarch of the whole northern Mississippi blues community — died in 1998.)
Far afield from both the front-porch strains of revered acoustic-blues masters and the slickly packaged, white-boy whining that passes for the genre’s contemporary avatar, the sound of Mississippi hill-country natives Burnside, Ford and Jones (not to mention such other Fat Possum artists as Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early) has more accurately been compared to punk-rock. Marked by stripped-down, one- and two-chord electric guitar; a mercilessly primitive drum beat; random yelling; and oddly droning repetition, the sound has been dubbed “trance-blues.”
But Burnside says the punk label suits him just fine. “It is still the blues,” he asserted during a recent phone chat from a Caravan stop in Champaign, Ill., “but, yeah, there’s sure a little something different in there, with all the hollering and carrying on.”
The singer/guitarist has been known to holler and carry on with the likes of funkified whippersnapper Jon Spencer and his Blues Explosion, with whom Burnside toured and recorded 1996’s A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. That surreal effort was marked by a highly profane, greasy abandon one would never have deemed the poster-boy-pretty Spencer and company capable of (but Burnside, we suspect, can be plenty persuasive). The next year’s Mr. Wizard featured Spencer on only two tracks and captured Burnside’s rough-hewn charm in more earthbound (if not more sedate) ways. The latest Burnside release — 1998’s Come On In — is a crazy collection of remixed dance music that combines Burnside’s trademark trance-blues with a hip-hop edge that perhaps reflects the Epitaph Records influence.
“It was the record company’s idea to do that dance stuff, but I like it now,” says Burnside, allowing, “I wasn’t so sure, at first.” He credits that disc and the work with Spencer with introducing his music to a younger crowd. “Young people started coming to the shows and, of course, they’d never heard nothin’ played like that. And I was kinda nervous at first, because I’d never did nothin’ in public like that, either. … But I think young people’s realizin’ now that all music started with the blues.”
Burnside’s first two discs were wrapped in tragedy: His house burned to the ground the afternoon he finished recording the aptly titled Bad Luck City, and his beloved dog, Buck, was killed in what Burnside calls a “drive-by shooting” just after Too Bad Jim was completed, in 1995. “But I think my luck’s done changed,” he says now, with a chuckle. “Nothin’ bad’s happened after these last CDs.”
Burnside spent the better part of his life as an itinerant sharecropper in the same area of northern Mississippi that he, his wife, Alice, and his 12 living children still call home. He recalls first “making a chord” on an acoustic guitar at age 22 — inspired by neighbor Mississippi Fred McDowell — and soon after began playing local dances and house parties. Word of Burnside’s hounds-of-hell prowess spread, but music of necessity took a back seat to backbreaking days in the corn, soybean and cotton fields.
In the late ’40s, Burnside got the chance to try his luck in the Chicago blues world, when his cousin married Muddy Waters (who then lived in the Windy City). Even with Waters’ support, though, gigs were scarce-to-nonexistent for the unknown Burnside, so he gave up and moved back to the Mississippi hill country a couple of years later. While continuing to farm, he managed to open a succession of rough-and-tumble juke joints, the most notorious of which was called The Burnside Palace.
Somewhere along the line, Burnside shot and killed a man.
He swears to this day it was an act of self-defense, and he’s been famously quoted as saying: “I didn’t mean to kill anybody. I just shot him in the head. Him dying was between him and God.”
Burnside spent three months in jail for the offense, before the plantation owner he worked for made some well-placed phone calls. Burnside was back in the fields by planting time.
“I always had in the back of my mind while I was out in them fields that I’d be a musician,” he remembers now, “but I just never thought I’d be able to do it.”
He has, though, right on down to the European tours (“The people over there’s crazy about this stuff,” Burnside reports, adding, “They’ve not heard the blues as much as Americans”). There’ve even been some lucrative offers, such as the chance to play on a Bob Dylan tribute project (“Bob Dill, some white boy — you ever heard of him?” he asked a reporter who happened to be in the room when the telephone offer came in).
But after the Juke Joint Caravan makes its final stop, right here in Asheville, Burnside will be scaling back his touring schedule, due to health problems (that culminated in angioplasty surgery last month). The show is billed as Burnside’s final tour, but the man himself is reluctant to make such a definitive statement.
Noted blues historian and documentary filmmaker Robert Palmer summed up Burnside’s place in blues history thusly: “The essential character of R.L.’s blues is chaos-on-wheels; it rocks as hard as any music on the planet while spreading waves of sex and mayhem far and wide. But it’s grounded in an implicit order: the rhythmic and melodic deep structures of north Mississippi blues.” As for T-Model Ford, despite the fact that his life has been marked by unimaginable hard times and violence, he’s an almost maniacally chipper man. Infinitely more talkative than Burnside, he’s quick with a high-pitched laugh at his own expense and prone to rapturous soliloquies about all the “fine white women” he’s met since going on the road.
“I guess I ought to be home,” Ford told me with a big laugh, after Burnside handed him the phone. “I’m tryin’ to be a young man. But this music and the good Lord is keepin’ me going. … Everyone that’s meet me talks about how they love my playin’. And the ladies is glad to hear me. And I’m glad to look at them.
“I at first wasn’t used to the white women,” he continues. “But now that I got out there and got used to them, and I’m likin’ ’em pretty hard. Yeah, they fine.”
The five-times-married Ford has fathered 26 kids that he knows about, by a brigade of different women. Nowaways, he resides with girlfriend Stella (memorialized none too flatteringly in his best-known song, “I’m Insane”). “She says she isn’t gonna never leave me, don’t make no difference what go on,” he relates, adding, “but I’m a wild old man. My eyes is somewhere else.”
Born James Lewis Carter Ford, he began his life at the mercy of a sadistic father who regularly beat the boy senseless and later took off with the young Ford’s first wife. At age 18, Ford, too, killed a man. The guy was trying to off his first cousin, says Ford, so he stabbed him with a cheap pocket knife. He spent three years on a Mississippi chain gang and still bears the scars on his left ankle to prove it. “Yeah, I cut the guy,” Ford says simply. “He liked to have cut me to death, but I beat him to it. I had never even saw him before. It don’t hurt me now, though. What I done, I don’t worry about. I’m trying to stay happy now. You’ve got to live happy and let everybody you meet mostly be friends, be friendly with ’em.” He pauses before adding, “especially with the white ladies. When I run up on my first white lady, I couldn’t let her alone.”
A hell-raising brawler through most of his youth, Ford has been shot, cut and randomly banged up. Through the years, he’s made his living as a mechanic, a truck driver and a logger.
Ford didn’t pick up a guitar until age 58, and then only grudgingly. His then-wife presented him with a guitar and amp at a time when money for such foolishness was in short supply. “I was bringing my money home from working [at a sawmill] and giving it to her, and she saved up and bought me a guitar and a ‘lectric amplifier. I’d never had nothing like that. When I come home from work, she told me she got it. And I asked her what was she doin’ spendin’ my money on something like that, when I can’t play and can’t even read. And she said, ‘Well, you can learn.’ Well, I didn’t even fool with it. I didn’t even take it out of the box and look at it. But it rained and I couldn’t work one day, and I was settin’ there and she brought it up again. … And I took it out of the case and hooked it up and started messin’ with it, and I finally got a sound to come out. It was a song by Muddy Waters that I first played. And I just learned to play that same night. But I was ashamed to get out and play with all the other guys that’d been playin’ a long time. So I just went out on my own as a one-man band.
“Everybody liked the T-Model,” he adds, chuckling.
As evidenced on his latest CD, 1998’s You Better Keep Still, Ford’s music is even rawer and more primitive than Burnside’s, often sounding as if it’s made up as he goes along — which it usually is. “As far as readin’ and writin’, I can’t do that,” he affirms. “But I make up my mind I want to do a song and then I just make it up on the guitar. The name of my guitar’s Black Nanny, and I love Black Nanny. I’ve had her a couple of years. I love her pretty hard.”
Joined by drummer Spam (who’s had his own brushes with violence, the latest culminating in his fingertips being snipped off with a box cutter by a disgruntled girlfriend), Ford’s odd, slash-and-burn rhythms suggest a mutant, African fife-and-drum-corps — on acid. Lyrically, he’s apt to sing (holler, actually) about butt-kicking and love gone wrong — often simultaneously. “I went walkin’ round to the gal I love/She said, ‘If you don’t get out of my face/I’ll put my foot in you ass,” he notes memorably in “To the Left, to the Right” (from You Better Keep Still).
By far the most enigmatic of the Caravan’s three performers, though, is Paul “Wine” Jones — due mainly to a decided lack of the kind of press attention his colorful cohorts have enjoyed. But that’s not to say he’s any less colorful (or gloriously primal). His two CDs — 1995’s Mule and 1999’s Pucker Up Buttercup — have elicited such heady praise as this, from Playboy magazine: “The blues come in two basic categories: raw and cooked. If you prefer raw, then … Paul “Wine” Jones might just be your bleeding hunk of flesh.”