Ed Mabe Interviews RL Burnside

All Photos by Ed Mabe


An Interview with
RL Burnside
By Ed Mabe

Give me a little time to think, while I mix me another motherfucking drink. ----- RL Burnside, "2 Brothers"

Its 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 poser. And if there's one genre of music you can't bullshit your way through its 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 its 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 at Upstairs at Nick's 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!).

EM: Tell me a little bit about growing up in Mississippi during the 1930's & 40s?

RL: Well, it was rough. I grew up in the rough times, ya know. I grew up on a plantation sharecropping. It was a lot of hard work but it was good times then.

EM: When did you start playing guitar?

RL: When I was 16 I started trying to play, ya know, but I was 21 before I started getting out in the public playing. I grew up around Fred McDowell and Randy 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.

EM: 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'd be going to gin some cotton and my grandaddy and me'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.

EM: I read somewhere that you're related to Muddy Waters?

RL: Yeah. Well I went up into Chicago in the 40s. I got up there and he was married to a first cousin of mine, Anna Mae. 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 Zaneck Bar he played on Friday nights, ya know. And I'd 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.

EM: During the 70s and 80s 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. 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 halfway through 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 walked in the dressing room and Lightning and John Lee was sitting in there and its 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."

EM: 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 40s when he was living in Chicago he was sleeping in his car, ya know. Couldn't even pay for a room. He be up there playing with Muddy 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.

EM: Did you ever get to meet Elvis Presley?

RL: Yeah. See, I don't live but about 20 miles below Graceland. We never played together but I went to where he was playing. He was a good guy. He was doing the blues, ya know. 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.

EM: I gotta ask you about A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. That is one fine record.

RL: Ya think so. I didn't think they was gonna like it, ya know. Its 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 one.

EM: How did you end up recording with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion?

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." 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? 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 kill me, it can'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.

EM: 4 hours? You guys did that album in 4 hours? EM: 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 damn good show, man. And they play more like the blues now since I did that album with 'em.

EM: Did you drink any of that "Mississippi Home Brew" while you were making that record?

RL: Oh man, we drank home brew, corn whiskey and everything. Jon 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!"

EM: 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?

EM: Yeah, I heard it. I was just going to ask you about Come On In. Where did the idea for the remixes come from?

RL: 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. 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 loved it.

EM: It seems like you and a lot of the other musicians on Fat Possum Records are the last great 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. It took 'em a long time to find out where the music started from. But once they found that out its good now.

EM: What gives the blues such staying power?

RL: The way people was treated 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.

EM: Where are the blues heading as we go into the next century?

RL: They're heading right now.

EM: With you steering the ship?

RL: I'm steering it. And I'm gonna steer it right on down.

EM: What song 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?

copyright 1999 by Ed Mabe