Blues Power

Lesson No. 1 at R.L. Burnside's School of Music: "The blues started all the music." Burnside doesn't elaborate on that declaration; in fact, he doesn't elaborate on much, preferring instead the comfort and brevity of yes and no answers.

Then again, he doesn't really need to explain his blues statement; it's a common and well-documented idea that the blues, after it began flirting secretly with country and folk music, gave birth to this thing called rock and roll. Hell, given the genre's underground origins, you could even make the case that the blues was America's first alternative music.

These days the blues is on somewhat of an upswing. Veterans like Buddy Guy and B.B. King still draw crowds, while pale upstarts like Susan Tedeschi and Kenny Wayne Shepherd are finding acceptance on mainstream radio. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that 74-year-old Burnside is enjoying a career resurgence at an age when most men would rather be kicking back in Palm Beach.

"If I can go for another three or four years, then maybe I'll retire," he says over the phone, in a tired Mississippi drawl.

Thanks to Fat Possum Records and distributor Epitaph, the aging bluesman is finding acceptance from an audience that, believe it or not, may have never stepped foot inside a blues club before. These young converts certainly have come to the right guy. Burnside is practically a living embodiment of the blues. He grew up in rural Mississippi, near Oxford, where he was exposed to the area's finest musicians.

"I started playin' when I was 16," he states. "It took me around three years to really learn how to play. I was self-taught. I just watched people and played along with records.I'd watch them and listen to them play and figured I'd learn from them."

His first public appearances were at local house parties where he'd attempt covers of popular tunes by Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker. Although he enjoyed playing these shindigs, life in Mississippi was proving to be too rigorous. Sharecropping and farm work seemed to be the only ways of earning a living, so Burnside packed up and headed to Chicago. He lived there for three years, working for a foundry. When not molding metals, he sampled the Windy City's rich music scene. Although not playing professionally at the time, Burnside still rubbed shoulders with Chicago's prime movers.

"I'd go to Muddy Waters's house and watch him play. I had heard his music and didn't even know he was married to a first cousin of mine until I got to Chicago," he says. "I'd go to his house about two or three nights a week, and he'd go play clubs on the weekends, and I'd go, too. Man, he was a good guy. And he could play the blues."

But for every good memory of Chi-town, Burnside has several horrifying ones. Foremost among them is the murder of his father -- and the separate murders of two brothers. The tragedies proved too much for Burnside; he retreated back to Mississippi, where he has remained save for a five-year stint in Memphis.

On his latest record, Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down, Burnside recounts the death of his father on the opening track, "Hard Time Killing Floor." He supplies a solemn narration about violent life in the big city, and then details each murder. He offers this sad testimonial against the awkward backdrop of looped beats.

But it's those awkward beats that attract younger listeners, who have helped push not only Burnside but maybe even the blues into rarified areas. With the help of hip well-wishers like Jon Spencer, studio whiz Andy Kaulkin, studio guitarist Smokey Hormel and Beck stalwart DJ Swamp, Burnside is creating an altogether new form of the blues.

On the surface, Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down sounds overly calculated, maybe even cynical, with its manufactured rhythms, psychedelic loops and danceable mixes. But on closer inspection, the finished product is one of the most original pieces of contemporary blues available (even with its occasional forays into gimmickless hard blues). Credit definitely goes to Burnside, whose stern, authoritative voice is the rock that holds everything in place. Absent here are the corny guitar acrobatics as well as the predictable rehashings of blues standards. In their place is a record that dares to mix studio savvy with raw, painful experience.

While some purists may scoff at the end product, Burnside likes the way it came out. He also likes the company it keeps.

"A lot of young people are coming back to the blues now," he says. "There's also a lot of whites. When I first started out playing, you wouldn't see but a few white people. When I first started playing at house parties, there would maybe be one or two white people there. But now there's just as many whites, or maybe more, than there are black people."

Demographics aside, the fact remains that Burnside's career is at an all-time high. Some skeptics may see his success as the result of slick marketing and production techniques. The man himself places his faith in the power of the blues. As far as he's concerned, people will always return to this music, no matter what it sounds like.

"People start to realize that the blues is the roots of all the music," he says. "And that's what I've been playing. That's my life, and they're just beginning to realize what this music really is."

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Mike Emery