Bluesman R.L. Burnside ain't much of a talker, at least not to strangers. Getting him to open up particularly when calling him at his house near Holly Springs, Mississippi, from 2,000 miles away is like trying to pry open a treasure chest with a toothpick.
Which is why "R.L.'s Story," from his recently released blues-and-electronic album Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down, is such a revelation. The spoken-word piece finds Burnside, 74, recalling in tones still sad and wary, a period from the late 1950s when his father, two brothers and two uncles, were all murdered in Chicago in the span of a year.
Not that the singer and guitarist ever intended to tell the tale on record.
"I didn't plan on making no songs out of it," Burnside said from his home, where it sounded as though a good dozen or so folks were visiting in the background.
"R.L.'s Story" (RealAudio excerpt) and excerpts of the same story that appear in his cover of Skip James' "Hard Time Killing Floor," are both taken from interviews conducted by the folks at Fat Possum Records, then mixed into the album by producer and keyboardist Andy Kaulkin (Hepcat, Pietasters), Burnside and Kaulkin said.
"It's alright now," Burnside said, explaining his surprise at learning the interviews were turned into songs. "I just heard it once it was out. I felt alright then. I said, 'I didn't know y'all wanted to put that on the album.' [They said,] 'We didn't thought you cared.' And I said, 'Well, that's alright.'"
Burnside came to prominence in the early '90s, when albums such as Bad Luck City (1991) and Too Bad Jim (1994) the latter of which includes "Shake 'Em On Down" (RealAudio excerpt) revealed him to be a hill country blues master. Contrary to the better known Delta blues style, the North Mississippi hill sound emphasizes hypnotic, trance-like rhythms, remnants of the region's fife-and-drum-corps heritage.
Then in 1998, Burnside turned over a set of tapes to producer Tom Rothrock (Beck, Elliott Smith) for remixing. The subsequent Come On In, which includes "It's Bad You Know" (RealAudio excerpt), presaged Moby's blues-electronica meld on Play by a year.
Kaulkin said he wanted to veer from both the remix vibe and the traditional R.L. party sound for Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down.
"Too Bad Jim to me is the pinnacle of North Mississippi juke joint style blues," he said recently from the offices of the punk label Epitaph, which distributes Fat Possum. "You can't make another record as good as that for that style. I wanted to do something that gave him a different kind of framework."
So, as Burnside and Kaulkin recounted, the bluesman recorded a new batch of songs in standard fashion, either by himself or with his band. And Kaulkin kept the vocals, and then by and large brought in new folks to put on tape behind them. Beck cohorts DJ Swamp and Smokey Hormel (guitar) turn up, as does blues guitarist Rick Holmstrom.
"The problem we have is that the material he does is so ingrained in him, it's not like there's a bunch of new material for him to do," Kaulkin said. "It's not like he can pick up a guitar and learn a new song. He's really old and his playing is limited to things he's been doing for the last 50 years. But his singing is amazing. His singing has gotten more depth with age. So it was my thought to really focus in on his voice, and make a more melancholy record."
The result is an album that sounds fresher than almost anything that gets tagged "blues" these days, full of dirty looped beats that sound anything but studio-sterile.
The spry "Nothin' Man" plays like Burnside making fun of excuse-filled young 'uns ("I never had a chance. ... It never was my fault. ... I'm a nothin' man"), while follow-up "See What My Buddy Done" shows straight up how a bluesman takes responsibility for his wrongs.
Burnside himself will tell you in so many words that describing Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down as his own visionary project as the liner notes say, he's "still breaking down boundaries and bringing the blues to where it's never gone before" is disingenuous. He did his part, Kaulkin did his, and together they made an album Burnside's plenty happy with.
Folks who prefer their Burnside unfiltered need only turn to the new album's title track (RealAudio excerpt), as world-weary a song as he's ever recorded. Maybe that's because he's been singing it for about a lifetime, since he was 10.
"My mother would go to church every Sunday, and my grandparents," Burnside said. "And we started to singing in the church, me and my sisters. We'd sing three or four songs about every Sunday. Then I got up and I wanted to play the blues."
With all that time behind him, Burnside's still looking ahead, planning on cutting a new album no remixes, no DJs, just R.L. in the new year.
"If the Lord spare me, we'll try to do one with just some blues."