R. L. Burnside (November 23, 1926 -- September 1, 2005), born Robert Lee Burnside, was a North Mississippi hill country blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist who lived much of his life in and around Holly Springs, Mississippi. He played music for much of his life, but did not receive much attention until the early 1990s. In the latter half of the 1990s, Burnside repeatedly recorded with Jon Spencer, garnering crossover appeal and introducing his music to a new fanbase within the underground garage rock scene.
One commentator noted that Burnside, along with Big Jack Johnson, Paul "Wine" Jones, Roosevelt "Booba" Barnes and James "Super Chikan" Johnson, were "present-day exponents of an edgier, electrified version of the raw, uncut Delta blues sound."
Burnside was born in Harmontown, Mississippi, in Lafayette County. He spent most of his life in North Mississippi, working as a sharecropper and a commercial fisherman, as well as playing guitar in Juke Joints and bars. He was first inspired to pick up the guitar in his early twenties, after hearing the 1948 John Lee Hooker single, "Boogie Chillen" (which inspired numerous other rural bluesmen, among them Buddy Guy, to start playing). He learned music largely from Mississippi Fred McDowell, who lived nearby in an adjoining county. He also cited his cousin-in-law, Muddy Waters, as an influence.
Burnside grew tired of sharecropping and moved to Chicago in 1944 in the hope of finding better economic opportunities. He did find jobs at metal and glass factories, had the company of Muddy Waters and married Alice Mae in 1949, but things did not turn out as he had hoped. Within the span of one year his father, two brothers, and uncle were all murdered in the city, a tragedy that Burnside would later draw upon in his work, particularly in his interpretation of Skip James's "Hard Time Killing Floor" and the talking blues "R.L.'s Story", the opening and closing tracks on Burnside's 2000 album, Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down.
Around 1959, he left Chicago and went back to Mississippi to work the farms and raise a family. He killed a man at a dice game and was convicted of murder and sentenced to six months' incarceration (in Parchman Prison). Burnside's boss at the time reputedly pulled strings to keep the murder sentence short, due to having need of Burnside's skills as a tractor driver. Burnside later said "I didn't mean to kill nobody ... I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head. Him dying was between him and the Lord."
His earliest recordings were made in the late 1960s by George Mitchell and released on Arhoolie Records. Another album of acoustic material was recorded that year and little else was released before Hill Country Blues, in the early 1980s. Recorded between 1980 and 1984 by Leo Bruin in Groningen, Netherlands. An album's worth of singles followed, released on ethnomusicology professor Dr. David Evans' High Water record label in Memphis, Tennessee.
In the 1990s, he appeared in the film Deep Blues and began recording for the Oxford, Mississippi, label Fat Possum Records. Founded by Living Blues magazine editor Peter Redvers-Lee and Matthew Johnson, the label was dedicated to recording ageing North Mississippi bluesmen such as Burnside and Junior Kimbrough.
Burnside remained with Fat Possum from that time until his death, and he usually performed with his friend and understudy, the slide guitarist Kenny Brown, with whom he began playing in 1971 and claimed as his "adopted son."
In the mid 1990s, Burnside attracted the attention of Jon Spencer, the leader of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, touring and recording with this group and gaining a new audience in the process.
Burnside's 1996 album A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (recorded with Jon Spencer) gained massive critical acclaim, earning praise from music legends Bono and Iggy Pop.
After the death of Kimbrough and the burning of Kimbrough's juke joint in Chulahoma, Mississippi, Burnside quit recording studio material for Fat Possum, though he did continue to tour. After a heart attack in 2001, Burnside's doctor advised him to stop drinking; Burnside did, but he reported that change left him unable to play.
Members of his large extended family continue to play blues in the Holly Springs area: grandson Cedric Burnside tours with Kenny Brown and most recently with Steve 'Lightnin' Malcolm as part of the 'Juke Joint Duo', while his son Duwayne Burnside has played guitar with the North Mississippi Allstars (Polaris; Hill Country Revue with R. L. Burnside). In 2004, the Burnside sons opened Burnside Blues Cafe, located 30 miles southeast of Memphis at the intersection of U.S. Highway 78 and Mississippi Highway 7 in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Burnside had been in declining health since heart surgery in 1999. He died at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee on September 1, 2005 at the age of 78