However, like most people who play the guitar, Burnside kept his day job. He worked as a farmer and a fisherman, occasionally playing local juke joints or recording a side. It was only in the 1980s that his star began to rise as he played a few European festivals. Subsequently signed to the good people at Fat Possum, Burnside spent the rest of his life releasing a series of outstanding albums that updated his ramshackle Delta style with modern production touches.
In 1996, Burnside recorded an album with indie-rock huckster Jon Spencer titled A Ass Pocket Full of Whiskey which effectively married Burnside's blues sound to the Blues Explosion's chaos and noise. This album catapulted him from relative obscurity to (at least) cult status, and with his third album for the Fat Possum label, 1998's Come On In, his career really hit its stride.
Over the course of his subsequent albums for Fat Possum, Burnside would continue in this vein, alternating down-and-dirty blues with experimental tracks. The two I own, Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down and Well, Well, Well are equally good but very different. Heaven is essentially a Delta blues recording with some electronic production that at times sounds tacked on but for the most part only supports Burnsides' mile-deep songs. Less driving than Come On In, Heaven engages an atmospheric side at times that is unlike any other blues record I have heard.
Well, Well, Well, on the other hand, collects recordings from as far back as 1986 and includes a great cover of the murder ballad "Stagolee" as well as Lightnin' Hopkins' "Mojo Hand" and Howlin Wolf's "How Many More Years." Although arguably a grab bag of odds and ends, the album hangs together nicely thanks to the strength of Burnsides' repetitive, hypnotic slide guitar work and haunted vocals.
In 2003, Fat Possum put together a collection called Early Recordings, a group of solo recordings made in 1967 and '68 when Burnside was farming. A couple of his best songs that would turn up later on his 1990s albums appear here: "Goin' Down South," and "Come On In" in particular. It is fascinating to hear Burnside in his 'natural' element, unsurrounded by a band, drum loops or studio shine: to wit, he sounds exactly the same. Better yet, Early Recordings contains a number of excellent Delta Blues songs that never turned up on his later "official" albums, making it an essential for, well, everyone.
Fat Possum deserve a lot of credit for keeping R.L. Burnside's flame burning. They are a great label, dedicated to the artists on their roster to the point of practically parenting them when necessary. In fact, as far as I know, Burnside was able to live off his music income for the last years of his life, a rare blessing especially for an old Delta farmer. Besides Burnside, Fat Possum have revived or started the careers of Junior Kimbrough (whose juke joint is next door to the Burnside residence), Asie Payton, wierdo T-Model Ford, insane wierdo cracker Hasil Adkins, and insane wierdo cracker freakshow Bob Log III, and Akron, Ohio duo The Black Keys, all of whom are worth a listen.
I hope he is in heaven sitting down. (John Owen)
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