Seeing as how many young Country Blues fans are fervent admirers of R.L. Burnside, and how his music has drawn more attention to Country Blues than that of anyone else, save Robert Johnson, I'd like to talk about my feelings regarding R.L. Burnside.
Starting around 2000, I tried to become familiar with Burnside and see what the big deal about him was. Unfortunately, I found his guitar playing to be very simplistic, his repertoire to be very limited, and I absolutely hated his fusion projects which Fat Possum Records almost definitely forced upon him.
My second attempt at understanding what was so great about Burnside's music came in the form of renting "Deep Blues" on VHS from my local library. The film, like most Blues documentaries, is pure crap in my humble opinion. The documentary finds an elderly Jack Owens in terrible form. It's also obvious that, although Robert Palmer was tremendously gifted in the field of Blues research, he came across as the personification of a nerd in the movie and took up too much time doing strange things. Lonnie Pitchford, though, was breathtaking.
As for the scene featuring R.L. Burnside, I didn't like the fact that a then-young, white British synth-pop musician was boringly tapping his feet to Burnside's music. My friend remarked that Burnside was barely playing anything on guitar.
It was not until discovering "Burnside On Burnside", which is more of a Blues-Rock album than a Blues album, that I began to appreciate Burnside in some way. After that, I got deeper into the music of Fred McDowell and realized that Burnside was playing on guitar simplified McDowell tunes. I also noticed that Burnside had a very nice voice for the Blues, and that it was unfortunate that his record company pressured him to engage in so many fusion projects.
In fact, up until that point, the only Fat Possum releases I felt were worth a damn were the McDowell, Furry Lewis, and Joe Callicott records.
Upon listening to and trying to appreciate Burnside for the third time, I got a hold of his "First Recordings (Bonus Tracks)" album and felt that it was some sort of mix of McDowell and John Lee Hooker. Some songs had Hooker's simple but beyond heartfelt vocal delivery (with lyrics that rhymed, Mr. Hooker!), and others had McDowell's fast-paced guitar playing. It also dawned on me that there was actually something legitimate to Hill Country Blues. It's a form of music in which musicians "don't know when to change", to put it in non-musical terms, which results in songs not being made up of predictable 12-bar patterns. It's also a form of music which apparently developed in isolation when compared to Delta Blues. Perhaps its roots are closer to West Africa, as well.
Upon further examination of Hill Country Blues, I found that the magnificent Delta Blues musician, Johnny Shines (who also did a handful of electric Chicago Blues-style and even Soul records, by the way) performed some songs in the Hill Country style, such as one of his versions of "Mean Black Gobbler" off of Johnny's "Takin' The Blues Back South" disc.
While Hill Country Blues musicians pale in comparison to the beauty of Willie McTell's guitar playing or J.T. "Funny Papa" Smith's Shakespearean language, McDowell alone justifies the existence and popularity of the Hill Country style. Furthermore, the music of Burnside gives us something which McTell and other, better guitar players, singers and lyricists than Burnside cannot provide us: music to which we can dance.
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