R.L. Burnside - The Man Who Brought Back Hill Country Blues

R.L. Burnside - The Man Who Brought Back Hill Country Blues


The Mississippi Hill Country is a place deeply rooted in the traditions and culture of the African American community, where the blues has thrived for generations. Among the countless artists who emerged from this fertile musical landscape, R.L. Burnside stands tall as a legendary figure whose raw power and distinctive sound continue to captivate audiences worldwide.

Burnside's music embodied the very essence of the hill country blues, an often overlooked and underappreciated genre that stood apart from its more well-known counterparts. This distinctive style, characterized by its rhythmic drive and raw energy, brought a new dimension to the blues. It was a sound that captured the raw emotions and realities of rural life, resonating deeply with listeners who were drawn to its authenticity.

As we delve into the life and career of R.L. Burnside, we explore the profound impact he had on the hill country blues genre and the wider blues landscape. From his early struggles and humble beginnings to his rise as a renowned musician, Burnside's story serves as a testament to the power of the blues and its ability to transcend boundaries.


(R.L. Burnside is pictured in this photo. "Burnside Style" hats like the one pictured in this photo are available through our online store!)


R.L. Burnside's Upbringing And Early Years:

R.L. Burnside's early years were defined by a combination of struggle, hard work, and a deep connection to the Mississippi Hill Country. Born on November 23, 1926, in Lafayette County, Mississippi, he grew up amidst the rural landscapes and close-knit communities that would later shape his music and artistic vision.

As a young boy, Burnside was exposed to the rich musical traditions of the surrounding areas. He absorbed the sounds of local musicians playing at house parties, juke joints, and churches, soaking up the rhythms and melodies that would become the foundation of his own musical style.

However, Burnside's childhood was far from idyllic. He faced the harsh realities of life in the segregated South, including poverty and limited opportunities for education and economic advancement. Like many African Americans of his generation, he worked in the cotton fields, experiencing the grueling physical labor that defined the lives of so many in the region, even doing so until the 1980's.

Despite the hardships, Burnside found solace and expression in music. He learned to play the guitar from his father, who was a blues musician himself, and began developing his unique style at an early age. Burnside's early influences included blues greats like Mississippi Fred McDowell, whose records he studied and emulated.

In the 1950s, Burnside's music began to gain traction locally. He performed at local juke joints and house parties, captivating audiences with his raw, soulful voice and innovative guitar playing. His performances were characterized by a driving rhythm and a mesmerizing energy that left a lasting impression on those who witnessed them.

However, despite his local success, Burnside's music remained largely unknown outside the Hill Country. It wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s that he began to receive broader recognition for his talents. He made a few recordings during this time, including the album "Mississippi Blues" (1968), which showcased his distinctive style and earned him some acclaim within the blues community.

It wasn't until the 1990s, with his association with Fat Possum Records, that Burnside's career truly took off. The label's commitment to capturing the raw and unfiltered essence of Mississippi blues brought his music to a wider audience. Collaborations with alternative rock and blues artists further amplified his reach and introduced his unique sound to new generations.

R.L. Burnside's early years were marked by the hardships and challenges faced by African Americans in the rural South. Yet, within those struggles, he found the inspiration and determination to cultivate a musical career that would make an indelible mark on the blues genre. His early experiences in the Hill Country provided the foundation for his distinctive style, and his unwavering dedication to his craft laid the groundwork for his later success and influence.

R.L. Burnside's Fat Possum Years:

R.L. Burnside's association with Fat Possum Records marked a pivotal chapter in his career, propelling him to newfound recognition and introducing his raw, unadulterated blues to a wider audience. The collaboration between the iconic Mississippi bluesman and the independent record label became synonymous with the revival and preservation of hill country blues.

In the early 1990s, Fat Possum Records, founded by Matthew Johnson and Peter Redvers-Lee, sought to capture the authentic essence of Mississippi blues by recording and promoting local artists. It was during this time that they discovered R.L. Burnside, whose powerful and electrifying performances instantly captivated them. Recognizing the raw talent and undeniable charm of Burnside's music, they embarked on a fruitful partnership that would shape the course of both the label and the artist's career.

Under the guidance of Fat Possum Records, Burnside released a series of critically acclaimed albums, including "Bad Luck City" (1992), "Too Bad Jim" (1994), and the Grammy-nominated "Burnside on Burnside" (2001). These albums showcased Burnside's mastery of the hill country blues style, featuring his signature slide guitar work, gritty vocals, and infectious grooves. The recordings captured the intensity and immediacy of his live performances, preserving the raw energy that made his music so captivating.

One of the defining aspects of Burnside's time on Fat Possum Records was the label's commitment to maintaining an unfiltered and unpolished sound. Rather than smoothing out rough edges or conforming to conventional production techniques, the recordings embraced the imperfections and spontaneity of Burnside's performances. This approach allowed his music to retain its authenticity, giving listeners an intimate glimpse into the heart and soul of hill country blues.

Burnside's collaboration with Fat Possum Records also led to fruitful collaborations with other musicians. His work with artists like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and The Black Keys helped bridge the gap between traditional blues and contemporary rock audiences, expanding his reach and influence. These collaborations brought a fresh perspective to his music, infusing it with a modern edge while staying true to its roots.

R.L. Burnside's association with Fat Possum Records not only revitalized his career but also played a significant role in reviving interest in the hill country blues genre as a whole. The label's commitment to preserving the raw, unfiltered sound of Mississippi blues helped shine a spotlight on an often overlooked style, garnering acclaim and respect from both critics and audiences worldwide.


Who Did R.L. Burnside Inspire?

R.L. Burnside had a significant influence on several generations of musicians. His raw and electrifying style of Mississippi Hill Country Blues left a lasting impact on the music world. Burnside's influence can be seen in the work of various artists, including:

  1. The Black Keys: The blues-rock duo consisting of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney has often cited R.L. Burnside as a major influence on their music. Burnside's rhythmic and gritty approach to the blues can be heard in many of The Black Keys' songs.

  2. North Mississippi Allstars: This contemporary blues-rock band from Mississippi heavily drew inspiration from the music of R.L. Burnside. The band's members, Luther and Cody Dickinson, were mentored by Burnside and performed with him before forming their own group.

  3. Kenny Brown: Kenny Brown, a guitarist and sideman for R.L. Burnside, adopted and expanded upon Burnside's style, becoming a prominent figure in the Hill Country Blues scene. Brown's music carries the influence of his mentor while adding his own unique touches.

  4. Cedric Burnside: R.L. Burnside's grandson, Cedric Burnside, has continued the family legacy, playing a mix of traditional and modern blues. He has won multiple Blues Music Awards and carries the influence of his grandfather's music, infused with his own artistic expressions.

  5. The White Stripes: Although not directly influenced by R.L. Burnside, the bluesy and raw sound of The White Stripes shares similarities with Burnside's music. The band's guitarist, Jack White, has expressed admiration for Burnside's style and incorporated elements of the blues into their rock sound.

These are just a few examples of the artists who have been influenced by R.L. Burnside, but his impact extends beyond this list, reaching a wide range of musicians across different genres.


R.L. Burnside: A Short Summary

R.L. Burnside, born on November 23, 1926, in Lafayette County, Mississippi, was an influential hill country blues musician known for his raw and electrifying style. His story is a testament to the power of perseverance and the enduring spirit of the blues.

Burnside grew up in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, surrounded by the rich musical traditions of the region. He learned to play guitar at an early age, drawing inspiration from the local musicians and soaking in the sounds of the Delta blues.

However, his musical pursuits took a backseat as he worked as a sharecropper and later as a fisherman to make ends meet.

It wasn't until the 1960s that R.L. Burnside's musical career began to take shape. He had relocated to Chicago in search of better opportunities, and it was there that he first recorded some of his early songs. These recordings captured the essence of his raw, hypnotic style.

It was in the 1990s that R.L. Burnside's career experienced a remarkable resurgence. His unique blend of traditional blues and modern influences caught the attention of music enthusiasts and producers. He signed with Fat Possum Records, a label known for its commitment to preserving and promoting the blues. The partnership resulted in a series of critically acclaimed albums, including "Too Bad Jim" (1994), "A Ass Pocket of Whiskey" (1996), and "Come On In" (1998).

Burnside's music struck a chord with audiences worldwide. His electrifying performances, characterized by his powerful voice and fierce guitar playing, brought the hill country blues into the modern era.


R.L. Burnside: Our Favorite Songs & Albums

Here at the Hill Country Archives, we love R.L.'s studio and live records. Here's a few records to check out, as well as a few songs if you don't feel like diving through records currently.



Mississippi Hill Country Blues - R.L. Burnside

This is R.L.'s third record (after Sound Machine Groove and Plays And Sings The Mississippi Delta Blues), released in 1987. This album is entirely acoustic and highlights R.L.'s incredible and unique guitar playing and vocal attributes. If you're interested in purchasing this record on vinyl, you can purchase direct from us here: mississippi-hill-country-blues-r-l-burnside-vinyl


Burnside on Burnside - R.L. Burnside

This GRAMMY-Nominated live album is perfect for capturing the essence of R.L.'s energetic and hypnotic live shows. Before long, you'll be stomping along to the drums of Cedric Burnside. If you're interested in purchasing this record on vinyl, you can purchase direct from us here: burnside-on-burnside-r-l-burnside-vinyl



Georgia Women - R.L. Burnside (on the Mr. Wizard album, released in 1997)

Perhaps the most electric and rocking recording ever released, Cedric Burnside's drums, Kenny Brown's slide guitar, and R.L. Burnside's rhythm and vocals complete every bit of this song.


Goin' Down South - R.L. Burnside (on the 1st Recordings album, released in 2003)

Here's a great example of a young R.L. Burnside's incredible voice and acoustic performance.

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