Sunday, May 10, 2009

Song of the Week: "It's Bad You Know", R.L. Burnside

Well, well, well. That's the phrase R.L. Burnside was known for saying before, during or after every song he played. Well, well, well. It's a rather splendid statement. So simple, so direct, so dang positive. It was very much indicative of the man himself, from what I have been able to ascertain. 

R.L. Burnside is an intriguing soul in the history of blues. A small farm owner and worker from Holly Springs, Mississippi, Burnside learned his craft from his next door neighbor, none other than Mississippi Fred McDowell. He played house parties and local juke joints for his hill country neighbors (including Junior Kimbrogh and T-Model Ford) for years in complete and beautiful obscurity. Then in 1967, a folklorist by the name of George Mitchell traveled from Memphis to the edge of the national forest in Mississippi to record a lost culture of old-school blues artists. R.L. Burnside was perhaps the best of his "finds." The recordings, made on Burnside's front porch, have been released by Fat Possum Records and are a must-own for any fan of acoustic blues. The music is enchanting and timeless. Burnside's voice welcoming and plaintive. His guitar work, snappy and inventive. He finally had some recordings, a filming session, and some local attention. It stayed that way for decades. Then the improbable happened. 

Fat Possum Records signed Burnside and recorded a number of albums with the aging farmer/bluesman. Then, around the late 90's, musician John Spencer did a pilgrimage to Burnside's musical backyard and recorded an album with him entitled Ass Pocket Full of Whiskey. Burnside's hypnotic hill country blues, by now electrified, was a strange but intriguing mix with Spencer's more avant garde punk inflected style. More young, white blues enthusiasts were now sitting at Burnside's feet. Namely, Akron, Ohio's The Black Keys who were picking up on Burnside's catchy melodies and heavy riffs.

The next time Burnside sauntered into the studio, the lads at Fat Possum had a radical idea...totally rethink the blues and market to this new punk/blues crowd that looked to the quiet farmer from Holly Springs as their disciple. The affable Burnside was up for it and, with his young grandson Cedric and long time guitarist Kenny Brown, he laid down some hard core hill country blues.  The producers and engineers then broke it all down and built it back up. The result, like the record, was mixed...and the reception was the same. Then, just as it seemed like the experiment may have failed, another funny thing happened, the cats on the Class-A show, The Sopranos, picked up one of the songs from the album and featured it prominently in one of their episodes. Suddenly, at 60+ years of age, Burnside had a new audience. Suddenly he was a badge of hipness for the PBR drinking, trucker-hat hipsters that were in constant search for the next cool thing. Burnside was as hip as a western shirt with snap buttons, Pabst Blue Ribbon from a can, and tattoos of Betty Paige.

The song in question is It's Bad You Know and it breathed new life into Burnside's strange, meandering career. You may not like it. You may think it is blasphemy. Me? I love it. I find it to be a wonderful new take on a still fresh musical standard. I listen to and I think to myself, well, well, well. Burnside died about 2 years ago. I never got to see him. Dang.


  1. I'm not too impressed here. It's problematic when producer sees the artistic output in question as his own instrument. I don't see the approach as blasphemous. If I did I would have to disregard Moby's successful sampling of Lomax field recordings on his album Play. And I don't. The difference is with this Burnside recording is we have a living artist who makes some hip comments (It's Bad ....), not even part of a song apparently, that are sampled as the producer sees fit. I would rather hear his living song. The harp is cool, yes, but it is the same sample over and over. It is like watching footage of one wave crash on one rock over and over. Not impressed.

  2. Producer as artist is something I've struggled with for many years. particularly in hip-hop and the genre's heavy reliance on "sampling". I've come to a place where I've left behind my previously held belief of what the musical artist is. Namely, my previously held belief that they have to be holding a traditional instrument to be a musical artist. I now believe the producer/engineer is just as much a part of the musical creation as anyone short of the composer.

    JBC-15's comments on the Chocolate Watchband video posted a few days ago play to this. The Watchband were a real band but the producer, Ed Cobb, created entire songs w/o the real band members in the studio. Obviously that is unethical, but the output was, occasionally, still valuable music.

    And MikeMazz's post on Mike Nesmith and the Monkees is also applicable. The Monkees were a totally producer-created band. They did great work with only partial input by the 4 faces that graced the album cover. So, what was the Monkees? Was it those four cats or was it a larger collective effort. I believe the latter and I am fine with that.

    And that brings me back to this song. Yep, it was marketed as RL Burnside but there were many more hands involved (good and bad). What if it was sold as the Oxford Mississippi Hill Country Blues Revue? Would that change your mind on the song? Would that assuage your concerns about the producer seeing the output as his own?

  3. If I was at a dance club and this tune came on I'd say it was pretty nifty and probably bust a move or two. If I was driving out on some dusty lonesome mountain highway and this tune came on I'd probably reach over and open my RC Cola and shift down. It's a cool tune. But it doesn't really seem like it qualifies as a Burnside composition. I'm glad to hear that it isn't and that it is actually credited to the OMHCBR. Good on them!

  4. Mmmm, RC Cola. I could bust a move to that.