R.L Burnside died Thursday. Burnside was the unofficial artist in residence for the Rebel Rivers Canoe Club. Below are excerpts of an interview with the RRCC just before his death.
Transcript of an interview with RL Burnside on May 14, 2005 at "The Pavilion"
RRCC: Tell me a little bit of what it was like growing up in Mississippi in the '30's and '40's?
RL: Well, it was rough. I grew up in the rough times, ya know. I grew up on a plantation (doing) sharecropping. It was a lot of hard work but it was good times then.
RRCC: When did you start playing guitar?
RL: When I was 16 when I started trying to play, ya know, but I was 21 before I started getting out in the public playing.
RRCC: During the '70's and '80's, you did some touring in Europe. What was that like?
RL: My first tour was in '69 to Montreal, Canada. That was the first time I saw Lightning Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. When I get to the festival they started yelling "RL Burnside from Coldwater, Mississippi." So I go on and do the show, ya know. But I'm playing some stuff from Hooker like, "Boogie Chillin" and "When my First Wife Left Me" and some stuff fromLightning too. But when I first started off, I was nervous, ya know, cause I was drinking. After I played about half way to the song people got to patting and hollering. Man, I went to feeling good then. I rocked the joint. After I came off the stage, I went over there and talked to Robert and his wife. "Yeah RL Burnside, you sure sound good. But I tell you what. You got an ass-whuppin'." I said, "What you mean?" He said, "Lightning Hopkins and John Lee there in the dressing room."
RRCC: So the crowds in Europe gave a good reaction, even though they didn't speak English?
RL: Oh yeah. The first time I was over there with my sons we did the Blues Festival in London, England. Done the Red Car Blues Festival and come back through Frankfurt, Germany and the guy was carrying us around, ya know translating for us, I said, "How them fellas like the music? They hollering and carrying on and 99% of 'em can't speak English. He said. "Oh they just like the rhythm." I got them ol' words that I use, "Well, well, well" and after then and up to now when I go over there anywhere, when they holler "RL Burnside from Holly Springs, Mississippi. Well, well, well......"
RRCC: I gotta ask you about A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. The record you did with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. That was big for you wasn't it?
RL: Yeah, it was a good one. It started more young people to coming to the shows. That was the first thing I ever did anything like that out in the public, ya know. I'd always be telling them old stories but I'd be sitting back in the dressing room. 'Cause we went out three time opening for the Blues Explosion. They asked me, cause we'd be sitting up talking, "RL we need to make this." And I said "no, I can't do nothing like that out on stage." And they begged me to do it. So I went home and been there about four or five days and the phone rang. I was sitting there in the backyard with some of my friends drinking some beer. "Daddy telephone." I said who is it? "Some John." I said Jon Spencer? "Yeah" I said bring it here. So they brought the phone out there and he said, "Hey, RL. You ready to do that album?" I said hell yeah, come on down, we'll do it. If it don't hurt me none. Two days he was down there and he rented one of them big hunting clubs ten miles from my house. He rented that and we did the album in 4 hours.
RRCC: 4 hours? You guys did that album in 4 hours?
RL: Yeah. Then we went out on another tour after the CD and t-shirts came out. And we was over in France, London, England, Germany, Holland and Switzerland, ya know. Every night Jon would say, "RL, lets do "Ass Pocket of Whiskey." And I'd say no, man. I can't do that out in the public. And we done did three shows and sold 1 CD and 2 t-shirts. We got to Amsterdam and he said, "RL. let's do that "Ass Pocket of Whiskey tonight." I said, "I don't give a goddamn." I'd done got about high, ya know. Got up there and did it and man, we sold out of CD's and t-shirts, everything. We had to send back to get some more.
RRCC: Then the crowd reaction was great then?
RL: Oh, yeah. They loved that. About 2 weeks ago, we was down in Australia and they said "RL, we need to do the "Ass Pocket of Whiskey." And I said, "Man, you know we can't do that at no festival. A bunch of young kids and things out there. He said "hell yeah, that's what they want, man. I'll show ya. I'll ask 'em." So Jon got on the mic and said, "Ya'll heard tell of RL Burnside and the "Ass Pocket of Whiskey?" Ya'll don't care about him talking about fucking and that kinda stuff do ya? Pussy and yer dick?" I went out there man and people got to jumping and hollering and jumping all up on the stage. Jon was up on a speaker jumping all over the place. He jumped down and cut a flip and the people stood a-hollering, "More, more, Ass Pocket..."
(Interrupted by one of the employees bringing RL a bottle of Old Grandad Whiskey.)
RL: Well, well, well. (Laughter)
RRCC: Back to Jon Spencer for a second. How did your music differ before Ass Pocket?
RL: He just asked the record company if we could open for him, ya know. And we just went out and opened for him two or three times before we did the album. But we'd be sitting back in the dressing room drinking and talking and I'd be telling them ol' dirty stories. And that's when he said, "RL, we need to make an album outta that, man." And I said, "Oh man, ain't nobody gonna buy that." And he said "yeah they will. That's what the people wanna hear." But I hadn't ever did nothing like that out in the public, ya know. And didn't think it was gonna work but it went over really good.
RRCC: Did ya'll have a good time making that record? Did you drink any of that whiskey?
RL: What? A bunch of whiskey.
RRCC: Did you turn Jon on to any of that local "home brew" down in Mississippi?
RL: Oh man, he drank home brew, corn whiskey and everything. He got so drunk one night he passed out in the yard asleep. I said, "where is Jon?" Had my son and my daughter out there looking for him. Couldn't nobody find him. He come back in and they said he was out there curled up under a tree asleep. I said, Goddamn!
(Interrupted by the same employee passing through.)
RL: You ain't got no tomato juice do ya? I like to make me a Bloody Motherfucker, ya know. A lot of people like to drink a Bloody Mary. When I go to a bar they say, "don't you mean a Bloody Mary?" And I say, "no I'd rather have a Bloody Motherfucker!" Tomato juice and Old Grandad. Cookin' with gas now.
RRCC: My favorite song off that is "Alice Mae." You gonna do that tonight?
RL: I might get around to it. I have to talk about Mama every once and a while, ya know.
RRCC: "Georgia Women" is good too.
RL: Yeah. I don't know, but I been told. They tell me they got a sweet jelly-roll.
RRCC: Did you play with Muddy then?
RL: Yeah. Be up there playing with Muddy and on that stuff and he couldn't even pay for a damn room. Sleeping in his damn car. Until they took his car. Then he didn't have nowhere to sleep.
RRCC: Do you have any rock influences? Or any rock bands you'd like to play with?
RRCC: Where are the blues heading as we go into the next century?
RL: They're heading right now.
RRCC: With you steering the ship?
RL: I'm steering it. And I'm gonna steer it right on down.
RRCC: What you gonna open with tonight?
RL: Well, I reckon "Poor Black Mattie." She ain't got a change of clothes. Girl got drunk and throwed her clothes outdoors. That was cold, wasn't it?
RRCC: One last question. Can I buy you a drink?
RL: OK... I'll take a Bloody Motherfucker.