Fans recently turned on to bluesman R.L. Burnside by his work with Jon
Spencer may be surprised to see the cover of his album Sound Machine
Groove. There's Burnside all right, grinning like he just finished
telling one of his homegrown, ribald tall tales -- but something's different.
He's got more teeth, and he looks a good 20 pounds lighter.
A quick glance at the other musicians on the cover, with their mile-high
afros, reveals that this Burnside album -- although it landed in stores just
last month -- is actually quite old. As a matter of fact, Sound Machine Groove was recorded almost 20 years ago.
Though it was funded by a grant from National Endowment for the Arts,
the disc never saw release in the United States. Last month High Tone
Records finally issued the album domestically, complete with three tracks
that previously were unavailable anywhere.
Dr. David Evans, the Memphis State University ethnomusicologist who
produced Sound Machine Groove and penned its liner notes, said
that the album features the type of material one might hear at one of
Burnside's house parties circa 1979.
"They would turn the front room of his house into a juke on the weekends,
buy a few cases of beer," Evans said. "I don't recall any food, but I
think there was some corn whiskey circulating."
As Evans tells it, Burnside's sons, Joseph and Daniel, who appear on Sound Machine Groove would play guitar and bass, and his son-in-law Calvin
Jackson (also on the reissued album) would be behind the drums. Burnside would mostly sing. But then he'd pick up the guitar, maybe the bass player would stay with him, Evans said, adding that sometimes though he'd be joined by the drummer and other times he'd go solo. They would do a shifting set, take a little break, and then do it all over again, he said.
"Usually it would be 15 or 20 people, coming and going, drinking, talking,
dancing, passing out, the occasional fight," Evans added. "Mostly just people having a good time."
The Sound Machine Groove sessions were originally recorded for a
series of 45s released on Memphis State's High Water Records label to
document local and regional folk and popular music. The discs were then
licensed to the French Vogue label for the initial pressing of Sound
Machine Groove in 1981. The High Tone reissue combines those tracks
with three more, including "Sitting On Top of the World," on which Burnside
uses his guitar to mimic a traditional Northern Mississippi fife.
As this album proves, Burnside, now 71, has a much longer history than many of his current fans know, Evans said, adding that he first heard the blues great through recordings his friend George Mitchell made in 1967 that appeared on Mississippi Delta Blues: Blow My Blues Away Vol. 2 (Arhoolie Records).
In 1973, Evans met Burnside playing electric guitar with a drummer at a picnic. "On George's recordings he played acoustic, apparently because his electric was broken, that's what George told me," Evans said. "That was interesting to see him in that context, in a community setting. Then when I moved to Memphis in 1978, I went to visit Burnside."
And when Evans received his NEA grant in 1979, he and Burnside
entered the studio.
Evans predicts Sound Machine Groove will surprise old and new fans of Burnside alike. Those who have known him for a long time and think of him as an acoustic, country blues artist, will see he has a more electric side as well, he said. Those familiar only with the Mr. Wizard (Burnside's most recent album on Fat Possum) side, with Burnside as the focal point of this screaming alternative-rock sound, will hear a more stripped-down bluesman.
"That may reflect Burnside's greater participation with rock-oriented
musicians in later years, at his gigs," Evans said. "He's had a lot of rock musicians sit in with him, even locally, in recent years. And of course, younger
musicians are exposed on the radio, TV to different kinds of music. Rap,
all those rhythms, those beats, they have an effect, even if the drummer's
not consciously trying to play those beats. It's faster, more frantic.
"I myself prefer Calvin Johnson's style," Evans said, laughing. "Of
course, I recorded him."