RL Burnside: One Bad-Ass Bluesman
interview and photos by Ed Mabe
(November 1999)Give me a little time to think, while I mix me another motherfucking drink.
- RL Burnside, "2 Brothers"
It's become a cliche in music that to play the blues, first you've got to live it. Like all things authentic, nothing beats experience. The public, however volatile in its revolving taste of music, hates a poseur. And if there's one genre of music you can't bullshit your way through, it's the blues.
RL Burnside is the real deal. He grew up in the Depression-era deep south and saw things most people only read about or see on the History Channel during Black History Month. His life has been one long constant roller-coaster ride of the blues. To hear him tell it (and that's the best part), things weren't so bad back then. In fact, he makes it sound like better times.
But he is after all, like all great blues musicians, a natural storyteller. His attitude is humble and unassuming, and when he starts a story you're not sure if he's pulling yer leg, singing the lyrics to his songs, or talking to one of the guys in his band standing directly behind you. There's nothing pretentious about RL Burnside. Anywhere he plays, it's just another Saturday night sitting on the front porch of some Mississippi juke-joint, drinking corn whiskey, telling stories and playing the music he grew up around. I recently caught his act and got a chance to sit down with RL to talk about his life, the blues, and mix him a couple of his favorite drinks; a variation of the Bloody Mary called a Bloody Muthafucka (Old Grandad Whiskey
and tomato juice!).
Transcript of an interview with RL Burnside on May 11, 1999 at Nick's Upstairs in Philadelphia
PSF: Tell me a little bit of what it was like growing up in Mississippi in
the '30's and '40's?
RL: Well, it was rough. I grew up in the rough times, ya know. I grew up on a plantation (doing) sharecropping. It was a lot of hard work but it was good
PSF: When did you start playing guitar?
RL: When I was 16 when I started trying to play, ya know, but I was 21 before I started getting out in the public playing.
PSF: So what made you want to play the guitar?
RL: I grew up around Fred McDowell and Rainie Burnette and I just always have wanted to play. I started on harmonica first but I never could get that to work. I just give it up and said I'm gonna try guitar. I just kept trying, didn't nobody never teach me nothing, I just kept trying it and watching people till I learned.
PSF: What was it like playing with Fred McDowell?
RL: He was a big influence on me. He started me. I watched him and he was the first guy I saw play the blues. We didn't live over half a mile from him at one time. And then, for ten or twelve years we lived about a mile and a half to two miles from him. We'd be going to gin some cotton and my grandaddy and we'd be coming back in the middle of the night or in the evening and we'd stop by there and listen to Fred. When I got up to where I could play I'd go out with him on Saturday nights at them house parties, ya know.
PSF: How old were you when you played with Fred?
RL: Oh, about 18 or 19.
PSF: I read that you were also related to Muddy Waters?
RL: Yeah. Well, I went up into Chicago in the '40's. My father and mother separated when I was real young and he married again and he went up to Chicago. He'd been up there about 10 or 15 years. And I went up there just to stay with him awhile just to try and make some more money, ya know. Got up there and I'd heard Muddy Waters music and I liked it. I got up there and he was married to a first cousin of mine, Anna Mae.
PSF: Did you guys play together?
RL: No, I wasn't playing then. I just lived and listened to the music. I'd go over to his house about every other night. We worked at the same place, over at the Howard's Foundry and I'd go over at his house about every other night and listen to him play. There was a place there in Chicago where they called the Zanzibar he played on Friday nights, ya know. And I go up there with him to play every Friday night. Sunday we'd go down on Mackerel Street, you know, where a lot of blues players was at. I'd get to listen to them.
PSF: Who would you say are the biggest influences on your style of the blues?
RL: Muddy Waters and Fred McDowell. I like Lightning Hopkins too.
PSF: During the '70's and '80's, you did some touring in Europe. What was that like?
RL: I been touring since 1969. My first tour was in '69 to Montreal, Canada. That was the first time I saw Lightning Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. They was playing on the same day and me and Robert Jr. Lockwood and Robert Pete Williams from New Orleans went up there. I knowed Robert Jr. Lockwood but I didn't know Robert T. Williams. We was riding up together and I asked him where he was from and he said New Orleans, and I got to talking with him. He couldn't read and write so we messed around and got late and had to ride in the subway to get out to where we was playing at. We got lost and messed around. Finally got there and when I get to the place, I'm playing solo then, ya know. When I get to the festival they started yelling "RL Burnside from Coldwater, Mississippi." I'm walking up and this six piece band is just coming off the stage. I walks on up there to the stage and I see Robert Jr. Lockwood and his wife sitting over there. And he said, "hey man." I walk on the stage. So I go on and do the show, ya know. But I'm playing some stuff behind Hooker like, "Boogie Chillin" and "When my First Wife Left Me" and some stuff behind Lightning too. But when I first started off, I was nervous, ya know, cause I was drinking. After I played about half way to the song people got to patting and hollering. Man, I went to feeling good then. I rocked the joint.
After I came off the stage, I went over there and talked to Robert and his wife. "Yeah RL Burnside, you sure sound good. But I tell you what. You got an ass-whuppin'." I said, "What you mean?" He said, "Lightning Hopkins and John Lee there in the dressing room," I didn't have a chance to go in the dressing room, ya know cause I was late. I walked in there and they were sitting in there and it's the first time I ever met 'em. "Hey man, Burnside. I didn't know nobody could do that but us. I don't mind nobody playing my music long as they play it like that. I just don't want 'em to mess my damn music up." (Much laughter) Man, I was scared when I went in there. I was playing their music when I went in there. (more laughter). And I never have met 'em, ya know.
PSF: What were those tours of Europe like? What kind of reaction did you get?
RL: Oh, its great over there. The first time I went over there I was playing solo. I was playing with the Mississippi Delta Blues Band. I'd do 15 minutes solo and then I'd play slide with the band, ya know. And then the guy asked me, "RL, it ain't none of my business but how much are you making for this?" I said, "I make $200 a week." He said, "$200 a week? Would you come over here by yourself for more money?" So about a year later I started to going over there by myself playing solo til my sons got big enough, then we went to going over there, ya know. That started it all going then.
PSF: So the record you did with your sons, Sound Machine Groove was really good. When did that come out?
RL: I think it was around 1979. Name of our song was "Bad Luck City." A lot of people don't know that cause they ain't never been there, ya know.
PSF: So the crowds in Europe gave a good reaction, even though they didn't speak English?
RL: Oh yeah. The first time I was over there with my sons we did the Blues Festival in London, England. Done the Red Car Blues Festival and come back through Frankfurt, Germany and the guy was carrying us around, ya know translating for us, I said, "How them fellas like the music? They hollering and carrying on and 99% of 'em can't speak English. He said. "Oh they just like the rhythm." I got them ol' words that I use, "Well, well, well" and after then and up to now when I go over there anywhere, when they holler "RL Burnside from Holly Springs, Mississippi. Well, well, well......"
PSF: I gotta ask you about A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. The record you did with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. That was big for you wasn't it?
RL: Yeah, it was a good one. It started more young people to coming to the shows. That was the first thing I ever did anything like that out in the public, ya know. I'd always be telling them old stories but I'd be sitting back in the dressing room. 'Cause we went out three time opening for the Blues Explosion. They asked me, cause we'd be sitting up talking, "RL we need to make this." And I said "no, I can't do nothing like that out on stage." And they begged me to do it. So I went home and been there about four or five days and the phone rang. I was sitting there in the backyard with some of my friends drinking some beer. "Daddy telephone." I said who is it? "Some John." I said Jon Spencer? "Yeah" I said bring it here. So they brought the phone out there and he said, "Hey, RL. You ready to do that album?" I said hell yeah, come on down, we'll do it. If it don't hurt me none. Two days he was down there and he rented one of them big hunting clubs ten miles from my house. He rented that and we did the album in 4 hours.
PSF: 4 hours? You guys did that album in 4 hours?
RL: Yeah. The we went out on another tour after the CD and t-shirts came out. And we was over in France, London, England, Germany, Holland and Switzerland, ya know. Every night Jon would say, "RL, lets do "Ass Pocket of Whiskey." And I'd say no, man. I can't do that out in the public. And we done did three shows and sold 1 CD and 2 t-shirts. We got to Amsterdam and he said, "RL. let's do that "Ass Pocket of Whiskey tonight." I said, "I don't give a goddamn." I'd done got about high, ya know. Got up there and did it and man, we sold out of CD's and t-shirts, everything. We had to send back to get some more.
PSF: Then the crowd reaction was great then?
RL: Oh, yeah. They loved that. About 2 weeks ago, we was down in Australia and they said "RL, we need to do the "Ass Pocket of Whiskey." And I said, "Man, you know we can't do that at no festival. A bunch of young kids and things out there. He said "hell yeah, that's what they want, man. I'll show ya. I'll ask 'em." So Jon got on the mic and said, "Ya'll heard tell
of RL Burnside and the "Ass Pocket of Whiskey." Ya'll don't care about him talking about fucking and that kinda stuff do ya? Pussy and yer dick?" I went out there man and people got to jumping and hollering and jumping all up on the stage. Jon was up on a speaker jumping all over the place. He jumped down and cut a flip and the people stood a-hollering, "More, more,
PSF: That is one fine record.
RL: Ya think so. I didn't think they was gonna like it, ya know. It's got a lot of young people to coming to the shows. We done been on five tours and every place we been was sold-out but once. Every show but one.
PSF: That record really helped your career, with it selling so many records.
RL: Yeah, it sold well. That and the last one, Come on In. You heard that?
PSF: Yeah, I heard it. I was just going to ask you about it.
(Interrupted by one of the employees bringing RL a bottle of Old Grandad Whiskey. Part of his contractual agreement, ya know.)
RL: Well, well, well. Thank you, I mean spank you. (Laughter)
PSF: Back to Jon Spencer for a second. How did you music differ before Ass Pocket?
RL: He just asked the record company if we could open for him, ya know. And we just went out and opened for him two or three times before we did the album. But we'd be sitting back in the dressing room drinking and talking and I'd be telling them ol' dirty stories. And that's when he said, "RL, we need to make an album outta that, man." And I said, "Oh man, ain't nobody gonna buy that." And he said "yeah they will. That's what the people wanna hear." But I hadn't ever did nothing like that out in the public, ya know. And didn't think it was gonna work but it went over really good.
PSF: Did ya'll have a good time making that record? Did you drink any of that whiskey?
RL: What? A bunch of whiskey.
PSF: Did you turn Jon on to any of that local "home brew" down in Mississippi?
RL: Oh man, he drank home brew, corn whiskey and everything. He got so drunk one night he passed out in the yard asleep. I said, "where is Jon?" Had my son and my daughter out there looking for him. Couldn't nobody find him. He come back in and they said he was out there curled up under a tree asleep. I said, Goddamn!
PSF: I want ask you a little bit about Come On In.
RL: Yeah that was the record companies' idea. Which I didn't think I was gonna like it but after they sent it and had it remixed, he asked me could they remix it, ya know. I said yeah. But I didn't know what it was gonna sound like. But after I heard it, I love it.
PSF: So whose idea was it to do the remixes?
RL: The record companies' idea.
(Interrupted by the same employee passing through.)
RL: You ain't got no tomato juice do ya? I like to make me a Bloody Motherfucker, ya know. A lot of people like to drink a Bloody Mary. When I go to a bar they say, "don't you mean a Bloody Mary?" And I say, "no I'd rather have a Bloody Motherfucker!" Tomato juice and Old Grandad. Cookin' with gas now.
(I proceed to mix RL the first of many Bloody Motherfuckers.)
PSF: Did you actually work with Tom Rothrock, the guy who produced the record?
RL: Na-na. I never got a chance to meet him. He just made it and sent it.
PSF: Did you talk to him about it afterwards?
RL: I talked to him twice since it came out.
PSF: What do you think of the remixes? Was that any of your idea?
RL: No that was the record companies idea. They said, "RL, we oughta do something like we did with Jon Spencer." And I said, "well, I don't give a damn. Let's do it." And we went on and did it.
PSF: What kind of reaction have they fans of your music had?
RL: Well, its great. People love it. That and Ass Pocket have brought more crowds to the blues. They love it.
PSF: They should because it seems like you're just trying to make people dance to the blues again.
RL: Yeah and that's what they going by.
PSF: Has anyone been in touch with you about doing more records lately.
RL: They've been talking to me to see if I wanted to do another one. We was thinking about getting together to do another blues album, ya know. And we may do one of them on down the deal. I don't know.
PSF: Did you get along good with Jon and the Blues Explosion?
RL: Yeah, them is good guys once you get to know 'em. Like I told 'em what they playing ain't the blues but what they playing puts on a good show, man. And they play more like the blues now since I did that album with 'em.
PSF: I really like your Mr. Wizard record too.
RL: It was selling good till these come out but it's still selling.
PSF: My favorite song off that is "Alice Mae." You gonna do that tonight?
RL: I might get around to it. I have to talk about Mama every once and a while, ya know.
PSF: "Georgia Women" is good too.
RL: Yeah. I don't know, but I been told. They tell me they got a sweet jelly-roll.
PSF: Did you ever meet any of the old rock 'n' rollers like Chuck Berry?
RL: Yeah I met Chuck when he wasn't popular. In the '40's when he was living in Chicago he was sleeping in his car, ya know. Couldn't even pay for a room. I knowed him when I was up there for three years. I met him there.
PSF: Did he play with Muddy then?
RL: Yeah. He be up there playing with Muddy and on that stuff and he couldn't even pay for a damn room. Sleeping in his damn car. Until they took his car. Then he didn't have nowhere to sleep.
PSF: Do you have any rock influences? Or any rock bands you'd like to play with?
RL: Well no. Like I say I listen to a lot of they're music but I always just stay with the blues. It's all the roots of music. That's where all the music started from, the blues. And we got to try to keep 'em alive.
PSF: It seems like you guys are the last of a generation of blues musicians.
RL: That's what I'm talking about. We got to try to keep it going. Don't want it to end right now. There's a lot of young people going back to the blues once they found out that the blues is the roots of all the music. They going back to the blues. It took 'em a long time to find out where the music started from. But once they found that out its good now.
PSF: What gives the blues such staying power?
RL: The way people was treating it back in those olden days. That's what the blues is all about. Working for the man, you couldn't say nothing but you could sing about it, ya know. Couldn't tell him what he done wrong.
PSF: Where are the blues heading as we go into the next century?
RL: They're heading right now.
PSF: With you steering the ship?
RL: I'm steering it. And I'm gonna steer it right on down.
PSF: Did you ever get to meet Elvis Presley?
RL: Yeah. See I don't live but about 20 miles below Graceland. We never played t together but I went to where he was playing. He was a good guy. He was doing the blues and he did it. Then he took the blues and made rock 'n' roll out of it. And he give an account of everything he did. He said this is so-and-so's music. You know down in Birmingham, I can't think of the guys name, but Elvis did one of his numbers. Had it on a record, ya know. He went down there where Elvis was playing and walked up and his car had quit on him on the highway. He bought him a brand new car. After he got done with his album, he bought him a brand new car. He would do things like that. He made 2 or 3 people down in Atlanta and Birmingham rich, ya know. He had been doing they're music and they didn't think they was gonna get nothing out of it. He went down and found 'em and give 'em some money. Bought 'em homes and everything.
PSF: What you gonna open with tonight?
RL: Well, I reckon "Poor Black Mattie." She ain't got a change of clothes. Girl got drunk and throwed her clothes outdoors. That was cold, wasn't it?
PSF: One last question. Can I buy you a drink?
RL: OK... I'll take a Bloody Motherfucker.
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