Fat Possum Raises Hackles With Off-Beat Blues

Small label prides itself on putting out mix of old and new blues music that breaks from tradition.

Nestled in an unassuming warehouse just off the main drag in Oxford, Miss.,

Matthew Johnson of Fat Possum records is in the midst of a modern-day blues

experiment.

The 29-year-old label owner has for six years been reaching back into the

genre's illustrious, if not forgotten past while keeping an eye on the present in

an attempt to offer the world a type of born-again blues sound.

"[We got] tired of all the fuckin' [blues] tapes that would come in from Sweden,"

said Johnson, who, along with original partner Peter Lee, started the label in

1992. At the time, the two were writers for Living Blues magazine and

were concerned that there were many blues artists who were going unnoticed ...

and unrecorded.

Johnson, who likes to boast about his label's unique brand of blues, is not

afraid to challenge blues traditionalists. His label's slogan, "Not the same old blues crap," sums up Fat Possum's mission to offer an alternative to what typically passes for blues these days in America.

Releasing albums by unknowns of the past such as Cedell Davis, T-Model Ford

and Robert Cage and better-knowns including new bluesers the Jon Spencer

Blues Explosion, the label has earned a niche as purveyors of staunchly

individualistic, electrified Delta blues.

Originally, Fat Possum wanted to record Roosevelt "Booba" Barnes, a

Greenville, Miss., bluesman Johnson described as "Chuck Berry and Howlin'

Wolf, mixed. Have you ever seen him? Well, he's dead now, so you probably

won't."

Johnson said this with both a sense of irreverence and genuine sadness for

another in a line of great musicians who've died unknown outside of their

hometowns. It's that irreverence that runs through all Fat Possum does -- they're

calling their roster's current tour "The Eye Scratchers and Ball Kickers Tour."

Fat Possum's premiere release was blues great R.L. Burnside's Too Bad

Jim. The label first garnered critical acclaim when the late music critic and

scholar Robert Palmer produced Junior Kimbrough's All Night Long

(which contained

HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Kimbrough,_Junior_And_The_Soul_Blues

_Boys/Do_The_Romp.ram">"Do the Romp" [RealAudio excerpt]). Still,

Fat Possum didn't really get any popular attention until the Jon Spencer Blues

Explosion teamed with Burnside for 1996's Ass Pocket of Whiskey.

While that collaboration certainly helped Fat Possum out ("Yeah, in terms of

bein' able to eat," Johnson deadpanned), it also raised the hackles of blues

purists.

"They totally hate what they call our 'irreverent' approach to the

blues," said Johnson's current partner, Bruce Watson, 34, of the blues

establishment. Not that Watson and Johnson, whom Living Blues once

called "the Beavis of the blues," much care. They firmly believe that

the blues on their label is more authentic -- and just plain better --

than anything else that's out there.

"The stuff we do isn't the kind of stuff you put behind a beer commercial,"

Watson said. "Listen to Cedell Davis. [

HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Davis,_Cedell/Rock.ram">'Rock'

(RealAudio excerpt).] My God! People like happy, feel-good music. The stuff

we're doing is not that."

Singer Johnny Dowd, a blues aficionado and no stranger to a hard-luck song

himself, agrees. "You go back in time to the old bluesmen, and that was some

weird, radical shit," Dowd said. "You listen to a guy like Cedell Davis, or Booba

Barnes when he was alive, and at first you go, 'No, that can't be right.' But then

you realize, no, that's right because that's how he's hearing it. And it starts

totally fitting."

Watson said the label rarely

sells more than 10,000 of any given album and is still working on paying off

debts incurred from a distribution deal they had with Capricorn Records.

Currently, punk label Epitaph is helping Fat Possum out with distribution and

"everything," Johnson said. "They're like our fairy godmother. I've been trying to

sell out. I just can't find out how."

He and Johnson find most of the artists they record by hitting the road, going

from town to town and listening to everything they can, Watson said. "We start

out with the worst, most awful blues band you can think of and ask them if they

know somebody who's doing something totally different, something old-style,"

he added. "They'll usually say, 'Oh yeah, we know an old man who did that stuff

and he may be dead,' and we just take it from there. With Robert Cage and

Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early, we must have listened to 100 crappy-ass

blues bands just to track down those guys."

It's not that different from the work that the cultural anthropologists at

Smithsonian's Folkways label would call fieldwork, but Johnson's got no

patience for an academic approach to the music he loves. "If I hear some

asshole say 'This is Sonic Youth mixed with Robert Johnson' ... that's all

nonsense," he said.