R.L. Burnside by Gary Fisketjon

Part of the Editor's Choice series.

BOMB 57 Fall 1996
Issue 57 057  Fall 1996

The ironies and ignorance that plague issues of race in this country of course are not lost on bluesmen, who can claim as rightly as anybody the title of country-men—for themselves, deep country and Deep South. In the case of R.L. Burnside, consider first the fact that his nickname is Rule, and then a second, however coincidental, which is that the Delta hamlet of Ruleville sits cheek-by-jowl with Parchman, Mississippi’s notorious state prison-farm. Love hurts, as Boudlieux Bryant famously sang; and history doesn’t exactly help.

But so what. No matter that R.L. won’t turn 70 until this Thanksgiving, only that he’d slashed-and-droned out his own high style before Elvis amounted to a fart in a gale of wind. Nor does it mean much that despite the attention of afficionados ranging from the folklorist-producer George Mitchell to the singular Robert Palmer, R.L. persists in his mad, bad, dangerous essence long after Fred McDowell (a mentor), Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Bukka White, not to mention Muddy Waters, were able to achieve a sort of marquee value which now, in the Age of Snoopy Ice, is ludicrously impossible. While none of this is fair or right, it all might piss you off less (or more, depending) if you’d drive an hour south of Memphis on the old road through Holly Springs, Mississippi, into Marshall County; R.L.‘s homeland, where he in fact rules regularly at Junior’s, a juke run by the eponymous Kimbrough, merely 66 years old and no guitar slouch himself. Sunday’s the night, and you’re at the right place where there’s cars parked everywhere in the ditch with bottles on the dashboard. You’ll hear incantations and observations and celestial electric steel by a devil I know, and nobody’s ever heard the likes of “Goin’ Down South” or “Shake ’Em On Down” or “Have you Ever Been Lonely?” without R.L.’s permission. Or else skip the ticket and slot in the self-explanatory A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, his latest release, and begin to educate yourself with the best damn bluesman in America. (At your record merchant, or direct from Fat Possum Records, PO Box 1923, Oxford, MS 38655, (800) 659-9794.)

—Gary Fisketjon

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Originally published in

BOMB 57, Fall 1996

Featuring interviews with Jasper Johns, Tobias Wolff, Laurie Simmons, Sapphire, Scott Elliott, Brenda Blethyn, Craig Lucas, Suzannah Lessard & Honor Moore, Peter Dreher, and Richard Einhorn.

Read the issue
Issue 57 057  Fall 1996