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POP MUSIC

He's Just Glad You Noticed

R.L. Burnside has risen from obscure bluesman to alternative hipster. It only took about 50 years.

February 11, 2001|MARC WEINGARTEN | Marc Weingarten is an occasional contributor to Calendar

To get an idea of just how far R.L. Burnside has come from the backwoods juke joints of Mississippi, you only have to peek inside the cramped recording studio at Epitaph Records' headquarters in Silver Lake.

There, the 74-year-old blues artist is being treated like some septuagenarian Caligula. Two women wearing nothing but knowing smiles flank Burnside and occasionally slip a well-manicured hand through one of his red suspenders. Burnside just giddily plucks bluesy licks on an unplugged electric guitar and stage-whispers his signature phrase, "Well, well, well."

This bargain-basement bacchanal is not a typical occurrence in the life of Burnside. It's a photo shoot for Hustler magazine, which is preparing a feature on Burnside. The idea is to play with the myth that's grown around him--that he's some kind of unrepentant wild man who chafes at decorum and lives by his own primitive code.

In fact, Burnside barely looks up at the models. Instead of leering, he just flashes an occasional thumbs-up at his manager, Matthew Johnson, as if to say, "How am I doing?"

The session takes well over an hour, but Burnside is the picture of restraint. No bawdy jokes or double-entendres, just an occasional, "Well, well, well." When you're an in-demand music star, it's just part of the gig.

Well, well, well. Burnside's slogan is a joyous exclamation that perfectly articulates his wonder at all that has happened to him so late in a life that easily could have gone in a less fortunate direction. At a time when most men his age are either retired or pondering the idea, Burnside's popularity as a performer is on a still-rising trajectory.

All this for a sharecropper's son who didn't start seriously singing and playing guitar until he was in his late 20s, and recording until his 40s, after working for decades as an itinerant farm laborer.

His early recordings on the Arhoolie label gave him a profile among folk and blues followers in the '60s. Burnside eventually became a vital repository of a rapidly vanishing art form: the rural blues that took root in the most isolated enclaves of Mississippi's hill country north of the Delta in the '40s and '50s.

An indefatigable performer, the relentlessly touring musician achieved modest fame among hard-core blues aficionados in the late '70s and early '80s, a time when the genre was going mainstream with younger city slickers such as Robert Cray.

But in the mid-'90s, something strange and wonderful happened: Thanks to indie-rock singer-guitarist Jon Spencer, Burnside was discovered by a young, mostly white rock audience. That recognition led to a teaming with one of Beck's producers, Tom Rothrock, and became a springboard for the inclusion of his song "It's Bad You Know" in the HBO series "The Sopranos." The show's soundtrack album sold 400,000 copies and helped turn him into an accidental blues legend of sorts.

All of which has made Burnside, if not the unlikeliest new music star of the past decade, then certainly the most grateful.

"I'm just glad that all the young folks have discovered the blues," says Burnside, lounging in Epitaph's conference room following the steamy photo session. "All the rap kids and the rock kids are now trying to play the blues, because they realize that's what started all of this."

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Burnside is nursing a host of ills today. In addition to a nagging ear infection, he's smarting from a recent tooth extraction, and he feels a cold coming on.

With his rumpled flannel shirt and truck-stop baseball cap, Burnside looks more like a front-stoop philosopher than a blues savior, but it is his complete lack of pretense (call it B.B. King Syndrome) that has endeared him to music fans who demand that their artists keep it real.

"When I first started going to Europe, I would hit 'em with, 'Well, well, well,' and they would just look at me," says the singer, whose initials stand for Robert Lee. Now, I go there, and they all say, 'Well, well, well' back at me!"

Burnside's journey from farmhand to world-beating artist has been long and arduous. Born in 1926 in Lafayette County, Mississippi, in a tiny farming hamlet near Oxford, Burnside spent his youth plowing bean fields with mules, picking cotton and later operating combines.

Burnside, one of three brothers, continued to eke out a living as a farm worker until he was well into his 50s. He began playing guitar in earnest when he was 26 years old, when his neighbor, blues legend Mississippi Fred McDowell, entranced him with the incantatory power of his country blues sound.

Burnside appropriated elements of McDowell's approach, which de-emphasizes the four-square 12-bar structure in favor of one- and two-chord vamps whose casual, arbitrary chord progressions can be determined on the spur of the moment at the musician's discretion.

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