When the media spotlight swings toward the blues these days, it usually lands on young, white prodigies such as Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Shannon Curfman.
That makes it all the more unusual that a tour featuring several obscure black blues musicians from Mississippi, most of whom didn't even start recording until they were in their 60s or 70s, is generating the kind of buzz that's accompanying the Fat Possum Mississippi Juke Joint Caravan, which stops tonight at House of Blues.
The musicians on the tour--T-Model Ford, Paul "Wine" Jones and Robert Belfour--record for the tiny Fat Possum label and are known chiefly to blues aficionados.
Joining them tonight only is another Fat Possum artist, R.L. Burnside, the highest-profile of the bunch because some of his music has been used in HBO's "The Sopranos" series. One track from Burnside's 1998 "Come on In" album, "It's Bad You Know," is on the show's soundtrack album.
Burnside has become something of a cause celebre in music circles because several of his songs on "Come on In" bridge primordial Mississippi country blues with urban hip-hop sounds and rhythms supplied by producer Tom Rothrock and guest mixers including Alec Empire and Beal Dabbs.
Ford, Jones and Belfour, however, still play blues as if the music hadn't changed in 70 years, delivering the kind of unadulterated emotion that's attracting punk, alt-rock and rap fans along with blues lovers. It also attracted executives at the punk-spawned Epitaph label, which started distributing Fat Possum albums in 1996.
Yet even though far more money and attention are going to white players who still need to bring Clearasil along with extra guitar strings when they go on tour, Burnside doesn't dis the kids.
"I heard some of 'em," says Burnside, 73. "They're getting better. They finally come to the blues. It took people a long time, but now they start to realize that all the music started from the blues."
Much of Burnside's music is unfiltered, 180-proof blues, yet he has demonstrated a willingness to experiment for decades.
It wasn't Burnside's idea to add the contemporary sounds on "Come on In," but the results--the album has sold 62,000 copies according to SoundScan--brought him around.
"I didn't think much of it at first," Burnside says. "But after it starting selling, and started getting more young people coming to the shows, I like it."
Burnside, Ford, Jones and Belfour live in some of the remotest rural areas of Mississippi, regions plagued by poverty, gangs and drugs.
Burnside and Ford both served prison sentences for murder, decades ago. Ford did two years on a chain gang and still has scars on his ankles to prove it. And when Ford says he sometimes gets stuck coming up with a new song, he's not talking writer's block. "I got hit a couple of times in the head, and that makes me forget," he says.
Ford, who can neither read nor write, didn't even own a guitar until he turned 58. That was 21 years ago, when his wife surprised him with one for his birthday. Barely five years ago Ford's playing was limited to house parties and bars in and around Greenville, Miss. Now he's touring internationally as a result of the three albums he's recorded for Fat Possum.
"I really didn't thought I was good enough to go out and do something like that till Fat Possum and them cats came," Ford says. "They treat me pretty nice. They give me a little money. . . . It just ain't enough money to do what I want to do. I'd like to have a little more if they want to keep me," he adds, with just a hint of boastfulness. "Some more companies been calling here trying to get me to go with them. But I don't like to mess up. I like them [at Fat Possum]. They done pretty good with me."
* T-Model Ford, Paul "Wine" Jones, Robert Belfour and R.L. Burnside, tonight at House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. 9 p.m. $17.50. (323) 848-5100.