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Bittersweet endings
R.L. Burnside and Fat Possum

R.L. Burnside is on the phone from Mississippi, and he does not sound good. The usual robust spark in his voice is missing. He seems exhausted, though itís just early afternoon. Usually, he answers the question "R.L., howíre you doiní?" by firing back, "Hanginí in there like a dirty shirt." This time itís a weak, unconvincing "Pretty good."

Burnside, whoís doing a day of phone interviews to plug his new A Bothered Mind (Fat Possum), explains that he hasnít been playing, even around his home base of Holly Springs, Mississippi, since his heart attack about 18 months ago. He seems eager to pass the torch along to his sons, Dwayne and Gary, whoíve been working with their own bands lately, and he adds, "I ainít recording anymore," that followed by a string of hard-to-distinguish words that trail off in volume and end in an exhaled breath.

Itís heartbreaking. Iíve gotten to know many of the artists who record for the Fat Possum label while visiting their home turf in Mississippi and crossing paths on the road. But Burnside has always been special. He and the late Junior Kimbrough were the impetus for the founding of the Fat Possum label, which is based in Water Valley, Mississippi. Kimbrough was perhaps the last great rural-electric-blues innovator, patenting a style that echoed straight back to Africa over decades in the juke joints and a handful of albums like the exceptional All Night Long and Sad Days, Lonely Nights. Burnside was the last strong upholder of the droning, hypnotic North Mississippi sound, a master of cut-to-the-bone slide guitar and barnstorming rhythm.

In addition to displaying a musical command and charisma on stage and on albums like Too Bad Jim and the adventurous blues/trip-hop fusion Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down, Burnside was also a cosmic joker, a true wild card whose sense of humor ignited without notice. He might burst into a ribald limerick, or pepper a conversation with unexpected off-color jokes or corny one-liners like "I ainít drinking no more . . . and I ainít drinking no less, neither." And there was often an impish twinkle in his eye and a sly grin on his face, as if he were some wise granddaddy alligator lying in wait to deliver one of his biting but good-natured insults. This is a man who drove around with a Mylanta bottle full of whiskey on his dashboard. "If I get pulled over by the police, whoís gonna bother an old man about his Mylanta," he told me during one late-night drinking session.

Speaking to Burnside now, I sense that the weight of his weakened heart and 77 years of hard living have suddenly tumbled down upon him. Iím so disturbed that, afterward, I call Fat Possum president Matthew Johnson to ask why heís doing interviews. Johnson explains that Burnside asked, in an effort to pitch in on an album he didnít have much else to do with. A Bothered Mind is a mediocre collection of hip-hop-flavored tracks built by Kid Rock mixmaster Tino Gross around old vocal performances and filled out by a few live and studio cuts by Burnside and his band that Fat Possum had in the can. "I like them [the hip-hop tunes] they do sometimes," Burnside says, "but I like my blues a whole lot better." Kid Rock also sings on "My Name Is Robert Too," which features some fierce slide from Burnsideís long-time second guitarist, Kenny Brown, and an outstanding drum performance by R.L.ís grandson Cedric. (The pair now have their own band, Brown and Burnside.)

Johnson and I share the hope that Burnside will somehow experience a mid-winter renaissance à la Honeyboy Edwards, who at 89 is still touring strong. After all, the health of Burnside and Fat Possum are twined. Next to the Black Keys and Solomon Burke, Burnside is Fat Possumís biggest seller. And the labelís relationship to the Keys and Burke has been thrown into turmoil. On August 18, Fat Possum filed a lawsuit against its former joint-venture partner, the Los AngelesĖbased Epitaph Records, accusing Epitaph of hatching "a malicious plot to financially destroy Johnson and Fat Possum." According to the suit, Fat Possum was being funded by Epitaph, and it operated at a loss under their agreement from July 1997 through October 2003, at which point the smaller label was about to become profitable. At that point, the suit alleges, Epitaph informed Johnson that it would no longer fund the label or pay his salary. Johnson agreed to buy back Epitaphís interest in Fat Possum, but according to the suit, the price was inflated, and Fat Possum was pressured into giving up the rights to Burkeís heralded 2002 album Donít Give Up on Me and the forthcoming Black Keys CD. The suit also accuses Epitaph of dumping Fat Possum CDs into the market at "fire sale" prices.

Fat Possum has weathered trying times before, including a major suit by former partner Capricorn Records. So has Burnside, from a manslaughter rap to a series of house fires that have left him today living in a trailer. If either one disappears in the wake of these new trials, a deep sinkhole will be left in the American musical landscape.

Issue Date: September 17 - 23, 2004
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