Originally published in Arthur No. 19 (Nov. 2005)
ONE MORE TRICKSTER GONE
Late-Night Thoughts on R.L. BURNSIDE & the Indestructible Beat of the Blues
By Eddie Dean
You have to meet your heroes whenever you can, so I accosted Shelby Foote a decade ago as he was leaving the men’s room at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.
The 80-year-old author of The Civil War: A Narrative, rightfully called our American Iliad, was minutes from delivering a lecture to a packed auditorium, and he was in hurry to get to the podium. I wanted to give him a story I’d written about an obscure country-music rebel named Jimmy Arnold.
Hailing from southwest Virginia, Arnold had transformed himself from a shy skinny mountain kid into a bluegrass-biker outlaw of Orson Wellesian proportions. He tattooed himself from head to foot like a Celt warrior of old (including a panther on his cheek, a lion on his forehead, and Christ on his throat) and recorded a sui generis concept album about the Lost Cause, Southern Soul, before dying at age 41 of heart failure. I figured Foote would be interested to know that Civil War buffs came in all shapes and sizes.
I didn’t want to battle the post-lecture autograph crowd, so I figured now was the time for the hand-off. He took the package graciously, and I never expected to hear from him again.
Several months later, though, came his reply, in the same dip-pen cursive scrawl that he’d written 500 words a day for more than 20 years to finish his masterpiece. He thanked me for the story and the cassette of Southern Soul I’d included, “both of which made me deeply regret not having seen him [perform] live while he was still with us. Pretty soon, I fear, we’re going to run out of people like him & we’ll be much poorer for the loss.”
His words came to my mind when I heard that R.L Burnside had died in September.
R.L. was another hero of mine, and we’re running out of people like him. He was a trickster figure right out of Southern folklore, full of mischief and uncommon mettle. His signature, “Well, well, well,” was at once bemused and menacing, an open declaration of war against easy sentimentality and crap romanticism.
R.L was a realist, and as such took it as his beholden duty to tell the truth as he saw it. The witness to disaster—his own and those around him—must do something more than simply mourn. He’s got to testify. And must not only endure, as Faulkner put it, he must prevail. R.L. had his own way of saying it: “Hanging in like a dirty shirt.” It was an art that arose out of sheer stubbornness as much as anything else. He took the shit that life threw at him and tossed it right back, again and again and again.
When I got word of R.L’s death, it hit extra hard, because Shelby Foote had died only a few weeks before. I recalled our second, (and final, exchange. I’d written a brief reply of gratitude to his thank-you note, telling him that I rated Skip James higher than Robert Johnson as the ultimate bluesman. I knew he was a Johnson fan all the way, which his post-card reply confirmed. I also threw in a mention that John Keats was my favorite poet, and he agreed, adding, “Keats is my man too, I only wish he’d lived to be nearly 80 like Robert Browning.”
Thinking of these two old lions now gone, these two neighbors (they lived just 40 miles apart, Shelby in south Memphis, and R.L in north Mississippi hill country) of a South long dead and gone, it hit me that R.L. was the Browning of the blues, a late bloomer who gained more power and force with time, that rare musician who burns brighter as the years go on.
The late writer and record producer Robert Palmer “rediscovered” R.L. in the early ‘90s and his liner notes to the Fat Possum classic, Too Bad Jim, bears repeating for its insight into R.L’s love of chaos as a philosophy of life:
“One of the most productive album sessions began on a rainy Sunday afternoon with a rapid-fire sequence of disasters. A bass literally fell apart, a drum kit broke into pieces and finally a heavy glass door fell out of its frame for no good reason and was prevented from smashing the recording board only through the timely intervention of the producer’s skull. Far from being deterred, R.L. was positively beaming. He seemed to enjoy these incidents immensely, and by the time we’d cleared away all the damage he was in an inspired mood, ready to rock.”
As good as Too Bad Jim is, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey is better. Recorded two years later with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in a rented hunting lodge, it is, among other things, the hardest-rocking album ever made by a 70-year-old. It has been described as a party record, which it is, in the same way that the Stooges’ Funhouse is a party record. Even here, instead of grandstanding and showboating like every other elderly bluesman has done at one time or another (and you can’t blame a single one), R.L. will have none of it. He is a conduit, a cosmic joker talking trash and invoking the chaos of the universe. The band doesn’t let him down.
A few years after Ass Pocket of Whiskey made R.L. a sensation on the underground rock circuit, I went to see him at his home in the hill country near Holly Springs, MS. It was early January, in between tours, and he was nursing a cold. Even so, he was cordial and full of good cheer, as he must have been with a hundred other journalists who tracked him down in his final glory years.
Inside his small brick house, a dozen or so family members and hangers-on were crowded around the TV set, watching the western Tombstone starring Kurt Russell on cable. Nobody paid any attention to either myself or R.L. as he ambled back to the kitchen to make me a drink. They had seen this interview scenario many times before, whereas movies like Tombstone held up to repeated showings.
R.L, sank into a couch in ante room off the kitchen, and I took a seat opposite. He was tired, he needed the rest.
After a while, a party of young musicians came through the front door. It was the North Mississippi All-Stars, here to pick up R.L.’s son Garry in their van. Garry was playing with them that night at a show in nearby Oxford. The bandleader, Luther Dickinson, ended up into the back room where we sat talking. He’s a young dude with long hair and a quick smile, and, when he saw R.L., his smile got bigger and he went over to say hello.
Luther seemed to sense R.L.’s fatigue, and he knelt down so he could listen better to what he was saying. All I could hear of their conversation was a lot of ‘Yes sir’s” on the part of Luther and a lot of chuckling from R.L. I am no stranger to Southern ways, and I could understand that Luther was a well-brought up young man, but this was something much more than mere respect for your elders.
It was a beautiful scene, the young acolyte at the feet of the sage, paying tribute and also gleaning the kind of sustenance that can’t be found in guitar instruction manuals. I will always remember the glow that came over R.L’s haggard face as he bantered with another of his sons, this one adopted, who will carry on his ways, to not merely endure, but to prevail: Hanging in like a dirty shirt.