R.L. Burnside – First Recordings (2003)

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by Nick Deriso

Reissued through a joint agreement with Oxford, Miss.-based Fat Possum and Epitaph, “First Recordings” is the result of a neighbor’s recommendation.

“If you want a man who can flat lay down the blues,” Othar Turner said, pointing producer George Mitchell down the road outside Coldwater, Miss., in 1967, “I know who that be.”

It was R.L. Burnside, who later found chart success on the superlative early-1990s releases “Too Bad Jim” and “Bad Luck City”; as a guest with the Jon Spencer Experience and on soundtracks for HBO’s celebrated series “The Sopranos” and MTV’s “The Real World,” even through a Nissan commercial.

Mitchell, from the start, was struck by this nervy vibe, something the former farmhand would one day brag about in a moment of graffiti on the hood of his own van: “Burnside style.”

It was a dangerous, muscular sound, something far different than the Burnside presented here in his acoustic infancy. Yet, there are glimpses of the successes still to come.

In the ensuing years before his wider fame, Burnside had primarily played with a family band called the Sound Machine. Then author Robert Palmer featured Burnside, along with Junior Kimbrough, in the book, movie and soundtrack “Deep Blues,” garnering new and widespread accolades. Palmer later produced “Too Bad Jim”; Michael Johnson, and former north Louisiana band leader Bruce Watson, oversaw subsequent recordings for Fat Possum.

Along the way, Burnside established himself as an important popularizer of the north Mississippi style of droning blues. “First Recordings” takes you back to a unadulterated country antecedent to that sound, something akin to the plantation sessions with Muddy Waters (a cousin-in-law) before his Chicago-based hey day — and nothing like 1998’s hip-hop flavored rave-up “It’s Bad You Know” from Burnside, featured on the “Come On In” CD and later on “The Sopranos.”

Burnside tries out a number of traditional tunes during these initial sessions, including “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” (embedded below), “Goin’ Down South” and “Long Haired Doney,” among others. We get a clearer idea of where R.L. will go, however, through a sprinkling of early compositions — notably on the John Lee Hooker-ish “Just Like a Bird Without a Feather,” which opens the album. Also recorded as “Lost Without Your Love,” the tune almost elicits kind-hearted sympathy for the loss of a cherished lover — until you realize that the main character has apparently killed her.

(Burnside himself claimed to have murdered a man, and to have served a brief sentence in Mississippi’s legendary Parchman Prison for it: “I didn’t mean to kill nobody,” Burnside is said to have remarked. “I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head. Him dying was between him and the Lord.”)

“Skinny Woman,” later redone by the North Mississippi All-Stars, and the slide-driven “Walkin’ Blues” are among the other self-penned highlights of “First Recordings.”

Burnside passed in 2005, five years after issuing the terrific remix-based “Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down.” Burnside opened another door in his own legacy by embracing hip hop on that celebrated CD, and completed the circle of African-American music stylings begun with these, his “First Recordings.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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