classic R.L. Burnside articles from the Wall Sreet Journal and The New Yorker:
Your cool radio station went out of business. Your local record store shut down. You stopped reading Rolling Stone. You had kids. So whether you know it or not — last year, last decade, ever since you were in school — you missed a lot of great new music. In an occasional Speakeasy series, Jim Fusilli, rock and pop critic of The Wall Street Journal, takes a closer look at some of the best albums of the recent past.
We’ve seen this before – in an attempt to appear new and timely, an authentic Delta blues musician is brought into the studio and asked to adapt to modern arrangements. It didn’t work on “Electric Mud” by Muddy Waters or “The Howlin’ Wolf Album,” issued in ’68 and ’69, respectively.
But it did on R. L. Burnside’s “A Ass Pocket of Whiskey,” which was recorded and released in ‘96 when the Mississippi native was 70 years old. Unlike Waters and Wolf, Burnside wasn’t compelled to modify his style to accommodate the other musicians. The backing band here was the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who Burnside had toured with, and their sloppy style of punk blues, sometimes called scuzz blues, suited his barking, sharp-tongued style. Snarling and profane, “Pocket” sounds like it was cut during a night of hard drinking with neither the singer nor the band giving quarter to anybody else’s vision of how these nasty blues ought to go.
As a young man, Burnside worked menial jobs, sharecropping and picking cotton among them, and played music on the weekends. Mississippi Fred McDowell is said to have helped him learn the blues. John Lee Hooker and the great Waters, who he claimed as a relative by marriage, also inspired Burnside. On “Pocket,” Waters’ influence can be heard in Burnside’s phrasing, particularly in his reading of Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues.” As for Hooker, Burnside’s cover of his “Boogie Chillen” is an album highlight as Spencer, guitarist Judah Baker and drummer Russell Simins lay down a deep groove modeled on Hooker’s, but turned up to wall-rattling levels. If you’ve never heard the Blues Explosion, imagine Keith Richards, Ron Wood and Charlie Watts jamming in ’69 after about three sleepless nights, the studio floor strewn with empty bourbon bottles, a responsible sound engineer long gone.
In the early ‘60s, Burnside shot and killed a man; according to an exquisite piece by Jay McInerney that appeared in The New Yorker, Burnside told the judge, “It was between him and the Lord, him dyin’.” Convicted of murder, Burnside was sent to prison, but a white plantation foreman who needed him for the cotton harvest expedited his release after six months. Burnside’s spotty recording career resulted in three blues albums, the last released in the early ‘80s. He played the occasional blues festival and countless house parties.
In the mid-‘90s, Burnside toured with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Liking what he heard, Martin Johnson, founder of Burnside’s label, Fat Possum Records, rented a lodge in the woods, brought in Burnside and the Blues Explosion and recorded a lengthy jam session. “Pocket” comes from that five-hour party.
Scuzz blues isn’t known for its fealty to the blues form and on “Pocket,” the standard I-IV-V progression, as well as the use of sevenths, is almost always discarded; even Burnside acknowledged that Spencer and the band didn’t play the blues. On “Poor Boy,” Spencer and the band riff on one chord as drummer Simins works a pattern on the rims, then shifts to a steady backbeat. While Spencer solos, Burnside wails. It’s Hooker-like, terrifically affecting and it fades out while its still in high gear.
Similarly, “Snake Drive” is a one-chord blast, with Spencer playing slide guitar as Burnside chants. The performances are loose and intense, invoking the feel of a cutting contest in a sweat-soaking club.
The pounding, hard-racing pace is leavened by a few greasy mid-tempo numbers including the opener, “Goin’ Down South” and “Shake ‘em on Down.” Burnside “toasts” or raps “Tojo Told Hitler” and “2 Brothers”; “The Criminal Inside Me” jumps off the old folk tale “Signifying Monkey.”
“A Ass Pocket of Whiskey” introduced Burnside to the punk underground, giving his career a boost. Between its release and his death in 2005, he issued seven albums, including three in which his old tracks were remixed and fortified by new backing performances. One, “Wish I Was Heaven Sitting Down,” featuring Smokey Hormel on guitar, is a beauty, if a tad clean and organized.
“Pocket” is anything but. It’s a mess, ugly as a thunderstorm and an explosive collision of Delta blues and punk that works fine.
Below, “Criminal Inside Me” from the album:
White Man at The Door
One man's mission to record the 'dirty blues"- before everyone dies.
By Jay McInerney
R.L Burnside sits in a folding chair backstage at the village underground, in New York, mopping his brow with a towel and sipping from a half pint of Jack Daniel's. With his hair swept in two graying wings from his massive forehead, he resembles an impishly smiling version of the famous portrait of Fredrick Douglass. At seventy-five, Burnside exudes a jaded, bullish vitality. Wearing red suspenders over a faded flannel shirt, hunter-green pants, and muddy yellow work bots, he looks as though he's just come from a day in the fields, driving a tractor- which is the way he has supported himself for most of his life.
Well-wishers are surging backstage; one by one they approach and then crouch down to pay their respects. Introductions are conducted by a disheveled young white man, rail-thin in a T-shirt and jeans. This is Matthew Johnson, the head of Fat Possum records. At almost any hour of the day, Johnson gives the impression of just having got out of the bed after a sleepless night. Without benefit of gel or deliberate grooming, his short sandy hair achieves that pointing-in-seventeen-directions-at-once look that's become so fashionable in recent years. Despite the triumphal nature of the occasion- a sold out, celebrity-ridden New York gig by a musician whom he has almost single-handedly rescued from poverty and obscurity- Matthew Johnson has the worried, resigned expression of a man who knows that things can only get worse-and will.
"R.L., this is Uma Thurman,'' Johnson says in a weary drawl. "Matthew tells me y'all are in the movies," Burnside says politely, and promises to look out for her pictures once they get home to Mississippi. Debra Winger says hello. As Richard Gere approaches, Matthew Johnson reminds Burnside that he has met the actor before, when he played at Gere's recent birthday party in Manhattan. "Oh sure," Burnside says. "I remember him. He had all them monks at his party." The blues-man had never heard of Richard Gere; his concern was whether the gig paid in cash. He has worried about endangering his monthly welfare check. "That was one of the good gigs," Johnson remarks. "R.L. showed up for that one."
For the past decade, Johnson, who is thirty-two, has mad a mission of finding and recording the last of the Mississippi bluesmen- the inheritors of the legacy of Charley Patton and Robert Johnson- making perhaps the last in a long line of white blues entrepreneurs and preservationists from Alan Lomax to Leonard Chess, although he speaks disdainfully of "blues geeks" and is a controversial figure in the blues community. (A recent Fat Possum compilation was called, provocatively, "Not the same old Blues Crap".) Crisscrossing Mississippi, the poorest, most radically divided state in the Union, Johnson knocks on the doors of trailers and shotgun shacks, chasing down rumors of guitar playing tractor drivers and welders, searching for the living remains of a tradition that stretches back to the beginning of the twentieth-century. ("I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard a kid shout out, "White man at the door," Johnson says.) His discoveries aren't necessarily the best guitar players or singers in the world. Johnson is looking for something else- something raw and original, a kind of authenticity that some might call soul. "All I care is that they have a signature," he says. "I can find a guitar wizard in every mall guitar shop in America."
Fat Possum now has a stable of septuagenarian blues men, and a following that includes Bono, Beck, and Iggy Pop (who describes Fat Possum as "the most uncorrupted label in America"). Mississippi blues- as opposed to Chicago blues- is supposed to be acoustic and folksy, but the Fat Possum sound is grungy, repetitive, and amplified, more back alley than front porch. In many ways, it seems closer to punk rock than to, say, jazzy virtuoso riffs of B.B. King, or the polite homages of Eric Clapton. Some have called it "dirty blues", although that phrase is almost laughably redundant.
Fat Possum artists seem to share a background of sharecropping, illiteracy, poverty, and alcohol abuse and prison time. Burnside is a convicted killer, as is T-Model Ford, the crudest and most exuberant of the Fat Possum lot. T-Model Ford's drummer, Spam, lost several fingertips to a girlfriend with a box cutter. Seventy-four-year-old Cedell Davis, crippled with polio as a child, was crushed and nearly killed in a barrow stampede set off by a police raid. Paul (Wine) Jones, a part-time welder, is the only Fat Possum artist who's young and it enough to play an entire set standing up, although he is sometimes sober enough to do so. Johnson is suspicious of all blues, but he concedes, "My artists have all had hard lives, and that's reflected in the music."
My whole livelihood is based on a guy who doesn't give a rat's ass about anything," Johnson says of R.L. Burnside. We're in the hill country near Holly Springs, Mississippi- Johnson at the wheel of his Chevy pickup- heading for Burnside's house. "That's what attracted me to him. He's incorruptible because he just doesn't care. As soon as he got good enough where people wanted to hear him play, he stopped having a guitar. Now he borrows guitars and people give them to him. He'll play anything you put in his hands. I can't even tell you how many 'authentic' R.L. Burnside guitars we've sold to collectors in Japan."
The Burnside residence is a compact dilapidated brick ranch set back from the highway. The front yard is full of vehicles, many of which appear to be enjoying a well-earned retirement. Two years ago, the country hauled away twelve of them. Johnson is relieved when he recognizes one of the cars as Burnside's current ride; otherwise, there is no way of knowing if Burnside is home (typically, he never picks up the phone). Two small children are playing on the porch. At our approach, they retreat inside the screen door. Eventually, Alice, Burnside's wife of fifty-one years, sticks her head out the door and nods at Johnson.
Insides, two young couples are sprawled on fraying couches, watching a daytime soap. From a central overhead light fixture, extension cords cascade in every direction, like ribbons from a maypole. Alice leads us through the kitchen to the master bedroom, the door of which hangs at a wounded angle, a jagged hole showing where the doorknob should be. Burnside is stretched out on the double bed, recovering from a recent operation. It's hard to hear anything above the din of the television. The room is stifling and fetid. Roaches run up the paneling on the wall behind the bed. Sharp screws protrude hazardously from the bedpost where the finials used to be. Clothes are piled everywhere. A full-sized refrigerator sits in the corner, and a chain and padlock secure its door, which has no handle: with so many dependents-at any given time, several of his twelve children, as well as their children, are in residence-Burnside feels obliged to protect his food supplies. After a while, Johnson persuades Alice to turn down the TV. "I got a check for you," Johnson says. Burnside looks vaguely worried. "Last time, they told me you had to sign it." "It's made out to you," Johnson says. "They cut my welfare forty-eight dollars this month," Burnside says. "Maybe you could go talk to them." "R.L., God damn it, I ain't going to go lie for you again."
The check is for nine hundred dollars, but Burnside seems more concerned about his welfare payment-some three hundred and ninety dollars a month, despite the fact that last year he earned around $175,000. (Burnside was struck from the welfare rolls shortly after my visit.) "I had to pay three hundred twenty-eight dollars at the hospital," he complains. "You can afford it," Johnson says. Burnside shakes his huge head. "I don't know." You get the idea that money isn't nearly as real to him as the government-assistance checks.
Rural Burnside was born a few miles away, in Harmontown, which has since been flooded by the Mississippi. Like many sharecroppers, he moved north to Chicago in the late forties in search of a better life; since the invention of the mechanical harvester, the Illinois Central Railroad line has been the main artery of migration. (A hundred and fifty-four thousand blacks from the South moved to Chicago in the forties, about half of them from Mississippi.) Burnside could play guitar; he was taught by a neighbor, the legendary Mississippi Fred McDowell. In Chicago, he met Muddy Waters; one of his cousins had married the bluesman at the very time he was developing the new electric sound that would make him one of the most important popular musicians of the century-the godfather of the Chicago blues and the idol of British-invasion rockers like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. (Listening to Burnside today, you can hear the influence of Muddy Waters; like his cousin-in-law, Burnside has made a signature of the song "Rollin' and Tumblin'.") Bur Burnside found Chicago dangerous and unwelcoming, and he left the city after his father, two of his brothers, and an uncle were murdered there.
"My daddy, they stabbed him about twenty-five or thirty times, and nobody ever went to jail for it," Burnside says. "I had two brothers, two uncles, and my father got killed the same years. My brother, he was a doctor-let 'em have a little dope or something and then they killed him. They killed one of my uncles. Husband come home and caught him out with his wife and killed him. I don't know what happened to my other uncle. Yeah, I'm glad I made it out of there."
Things weren't much better back in Mississippi. Burnside found that he was being harassed by a local bully who wanted to run him off his own place. "He was trying to take over my house," Burnside explains, as he lies back on the bed and glances up at the silent face of Maury Povich on the television. "He thought he was bad. It's always the bad folks who gets killed. Them scared folks kill 'em. I told him, 'Don't come around no more,' and then he was here, so I shot him." When Burnside was brought up on homicide charges, the judge asked him if he had intended to kill the man. "It was between him and the Lord, him dyin'," Burnside says. "I just shot him in the head." (He delivers this little chestnut with a smile, a perfect pause before the punch line.) Burnside was convicted and sent to Parchman, the notorious Mississippi prison that has featured in so many blues songs. In some ways, life at Parchman resembled life outside; inmates served on work gangs, chopping and picking cotton. "We had to pick two hundred pounds a day," Burnside recalls. After serving six months, he was sprung through the influence of the white plantation foreman, who needed him for the cotton harvest.
Burnside spent several years in the Delta and several more in Memphis, where he says he saw B.B. King playing on Beale Street with a cup in front of him. Somewhere along the way, Burnside developed his own style of blues, and with each passing year his voice seems to get richer and deeper and more distinct. "Everything he touches becomes his," Johnson says. "It's what we call Burnside style. In the case of inanimate objects, that's bad. I mean, you could give him a rock, come back the next day, and it would be busted. But with songs it's good."
"I remember the day I met R.L.," Johnson says as he jams Kid Rock's latest into the CD player of the pickup after we leave Burnside. "We were driving in his car. He was drunk. Every damn light on his dashboard was on, red lights flashing everywhere. There were cows on the road, and he was driving with one hand. He's definitely, like, nihilistic-in a friendly way. He loves when things go wrong. Tornadoes, hurricanes, floods-he just loves 'em."
This seems to be what really attracts Johnson to these blues-makers-this spirit of anarchy, which he also finds in modern-day pop nihilists like Eminem and Kid Rock. It's a spirit that Johnson himself comes by honestly. Until recently, at least, his own life would have made a pretty good blues song, the my-baby-left-me-my-roof's-falling-in-police-at-the-door variety. He's got a damaged lung, bad teeth, a couple of hernias, and a back catalogue of death threats. His dentist once held up a toothbrush and asked him if he'd ever seen one, to which Johnson answered, "I use one of those to clean my pistol."
When I met Johnson, seven years ago, I was morbidly fascinated by his Southern gallows humor and by the chaos of his personal life; his primary interests, besides the blues, were barmaids, firearms, trucks, no-name vodka, and the kind of drugs that keep you up for three days. I couldn't quite determine whether he was an erudite redneck or a degenerate preppie; he might have been the protagonist of a Barry Hannah novel. (And, in fact, he once took a course at Ole Miss with the gonzo prince of Southern lit.) His anthem then was Beck's "Loser", with its immortal refrain: "I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me." Fat Possum Records, which was founded in 1991 with a four-thousand dollar student loan, went bankrupt five years later, and has continually been engaged in various legal battles ever since. His publishing company is called Big Legal Mess. (Fat Possum's corporate motto, "We're Trying Out Best," may be one of the least boosterish slogans in the history of public relations.) A few years back, he posted fourteen thousand dollars in bad-check fees. When he calls the Fat Possum office from the road, he generally says, "Hey, it's Matthew. What bad stuff's happening there?" R.L Burnside affectionately refers to him as "the head crook." With a characteristic mixture of bluster and self-deprecation, Johnson describes himself as a con man and a failed hustler; he likes to wheel and deal, to work the angles and play the odds, and getting beaten seems only to confirm his cheerful pessimism. Among his favorite publications-along with Penthouse and Western Horseman-is Tradewinds Weekly, one of those want-ad compendiums, which he scours in search of used trucks, farm machinery, and guns. When I first met him, he talked me into buying his '79 Mercury diesel. (He needed the money to keep his company solvent for a few more months.) The car turned out to be stolen, as my ex-wife, Helen, discovered after she was pulled over by a Tennessee state trooper, though Johnson swore he "didn't know nothing about that." Helen vowed never to speak to him again. A few weeks later, she invited him for Thanksgiving dinner, during the course of which he persuaded her to buy two horses. "You can't stay mad at Matthew," she said, even after the horse that was supposedly in foal turned out to be barren. It's a sentiment I've often heard expressed by women encountered in bars around Oxford, Mississippi. "He seems to befuddled and vulnerable," one of them said. "He's like the Mississippi James Dean. You can't make up your mind whether to nurse him or fuck him." Some of his creditors have been less generous in their sentiments.
Fat Possum is now based in Water Valley, Mississippi, a town with a Victorian main street built during its moment of prosperity before the railroad bypassed it early in the twentieth century. Johnson lives with his wife, Lori, on a quiet street in a turn-of-the-century bungalow so sparsely and impersonally furnished that there's scarcely a trace of its occupants, except for the sunporch, where there are bookshelves well stocked with twentieth-century American fiction, including the complete works of Jim Thompson and F. Scott Fitzgerald. A few miles outside of town, Johnson owns twenty acres of woods and pastures, where he indulges in the manly Southern arts of engine repair, shooting, and heavy construction-the partial frame of a barn rises from a hilltop, its giant creosoted beam salvaged from a demolished railroad bridge.
Johnson grew up in Jackson, where his mother worked as a secretary. He never knew his father. Shipped off to the elite Hill School, in Pennsylvania, he barely graduated with what he says was a record-low average. "I hated it," he says with Holden Caulfield-esque moroseness. "Everyone sucked." From Hill, he went to the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Ole Miss was then best known for its sororities and football team. Although Johnson nearly flunked out, he made one life-changing contact. "Robert Palmer had just left the New York Times to teach at Ole Miss," Johnson says. "He taught the history of rock and roll. Some girl told me Keith Richards was going to show up, so I signed up for the course. I failed because I never showed up. We got to know each other hanging out at the bars."
Palmer is the author of "Deep Blues," a highly regarded history of Mississippi and Chicago blues. "He shaped the aesthetic," Johnson says. An early advocate of the raw, electric hill-country sound of Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, Palmer encouraged Johnson to start Fat Possum, but the label's debut album, Burnside's "Bad Luck City," sold only seven hundred copies. Johnson then met Phil Walden, the flamboyant founder of Capricorn Records, who agreed to distribute Fat Possum recordings, but the relationship ended in an ugly court battle that lasted for a year and a half. During that time, Johnson sold or pawned everything he owned, and called everyone he'd ever met who might be able to lend him money-including me.
He briefly discovered a savior in Isaac Tigrett, a founder of the Hard Rock Café and the House of Blues, who offered to book his acts and work out a distribution deal. Tigrett's generosity cost him dearly, however, when Walden added him to the suit against Johnson. "I had three guys die on me while that was going on," Johnson says.
Facing ruin, Johnson decided to make a party record. During the previous year, R.L. Burnside had been touring with the indie-rock group Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Johnson had been brooding over the fact that the blues audience was largely composed of aging white baby boomers-"hippies with ponytails"-who'd first discovered the music through the British Invasion bands of the sixties. Johnson wanted to connect with an audience of his own age and younger-essentially, with Spencer's audience. While Johnson was still embroiled in court proceedings, he rented a hunting lodge near Holly Springs and recorded a raucous five-hour jam with Spencer's band and Burnside. Spencer recorded for free. The result-with a cover featuring a lurid caricature by the underground cartoonist Derek Hess which showed a leering Burnside brandishing his belt in the presence of a couple of pneumatic blonds-was "A Ass Pocket of Whiskey," which went on to sell seventy-five thousand copies.
Not everyone was amused. Spencer was attacked for political incorrectness and accused of participating in a latter-day minstrel show. And many in the blues establishment felt that Fat Possum was selling out. "The idea behind Fat Possum Records," one critic wrote, "is basically to take a bunch of old blues guys who can't play very well, call that lack of skill 'soul,' and sell it to the indie-rock and punk-rock crowd instead of the usual blues audience. Why not? They embrace plenty of artists who lack skill and soul, so they should completely devour this 'dirty blues' stuff."
Johnson was unfazed: "I've been trying to sell out for years. I just never knew how before." That year, 1996, he sent Junior Kimbrough on tour with Iggy Pop, a former Stooges front man and the godfather of punk rock, and later R.L. Burnside opened for the Beastie Boys. And Johnson finally found a congenial home for his label-and some desperately needed cash-at Epitaph Records, which specializes in heavy-metal and punk bands like Rancid and Offspring. The notoriously hard-living president of the label, Brett Gurewitz, was exactly the kind of rock-and-roll father figure that Johnson has always been drawn to (both Palmer and Tigrett filled that role, too)-a grownup bad boy whose Dionysian streak is tempered with an Apollonian business instinct. When Johnson met Gurewitz, at his office in Los Angeles, the label president said, "Let me ask you an important question." Johnson braced himself. "If the Terminator and the Incredible Hulk got into a fight, who would win?" "The Terminator," Johnson answered. "You're right," Gurewitz said. "We got a deal."
Fat Possum's headquarters is an aluminum-sided single-story ranch house just across the police station, where several of Matthew Johnson's artists have been detained on suspicion of vagrancy. The bland exterior belies the dorm-room chaos within: odd pieces of stereo equipment and car parts are stacked on a table; magazines, CD sleeves, and tools are scattered everywhere. A poster of gap-toothed, ginning T-Model Ford is tacked to the wall. "I DON'T ALLOW NO MOTHERFUCKING PREACHERS AROUND MY GODDAMN HOUSE," the caption reads. A tidy front office, where Johnson's business partner, Bruce Watson, works, provides a glimpse of order and the suggestion that an actual corporation might be conducting business hereabouts. Watson, a preacher's son with a mop of shiny black curls, dresses with a nerdy, rockabilly flair; he is Johnson's unflappable right-hand man, a self-taught studio wizard who writes the checks, coordinates the calendar, schmoozes the creditors, and generally keeps Fat Possum from collapsing.
A typical day begins at 11 A.M., with a phone call from Mildred Washington, the longtime companion of the late blues artist Junior Kimbrough. The bank says it won't cash Junior's BMI check without Johnson's signature. Fat Possum is currently involved in a dispute with some of Kimbrough's estate; before his death, the musician told Johnson that he wanted to leave everything to Mildred, his companion of over a decade. Johnson's attempts to carry out Kimbrough's wishes haven't been well received by Kimbrough's children, at least one of whom, according to Johnson, threatened to shoot him. "He just got out of Parchman," Johnson says, "and he said if he ever goes back it will be for killing me."
Kimbrough's place, Junior's-a popular juke joint where farmers and bootleggers mixed with students from the nearby University of Mississippi-burned down in 2000, not long after Kimbrough died. Kimbrough, a big, barrel-chested man with an air of almost regal authority, was one of the most distinctive blues stylists of recent decades, the Fat Possum artist who seemed most likely to succeed. His first album, recorded by Johnson in 1992, was awarded four stars by Rolling Stone. Rock bands like U2, Sonic Youth, and the Rolling Stones made pilgrimages to Junior's to hear him play.
The Kimbrough estate is at the heart of another legal mess that keeps Fat Possum's lawyers trooping in and out of the Greek Revival courthouse in Oxford. In the early eighties, David Evans, a professor of music at the University of Memphis, helped the university sign contracts with Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside: in exchange for a dollar, Evans established a claim to some of their work on behalf of the university. "We want to sue the university," Johnson says. "They sent a tenured professor to sign up these illiterate black guys. It's like some fucking Charles Dickens novel.
"These folklorists want to lock up these blues guys and treat them like rats in a lab," Johnson says of the University of Memphis project. His ultimate goal is to bring the music to "the kids"-those who make up the majority of the record-buying public. "I don't want only records made; I want these guys going to Europe and partying in New York. The last thing I want to be is a folkorist and record records that no one will listen to. There's a million blues records out there now. The world doesn't need any more. You can't just make a blues record today," Johnson says. "It would be like writing a Victorian novel. You have to change or it's dead. Just for the sake of preserving something-it's been preserved. These folklorists are, like, 'Let's record them and take some pictures and maybe the Europeans will buy them,'"
So far, Johnson has been successful at finding a younger audience for his artists. Nevertheless, Junior Kimbrough's death, in 1998, underlines the central flaw in the Fat Possum business model: most of the Mississippi blues men whom Johnson has set out to record are ailing senior citizens. They are the last of the Mohicans. "The young black kids in Mississippi are listening to rap and smoking crack," Johnson says. "There may be a few old guys out there I haven't found yet, but I'm beginning to doubt it. It used to be there where fifthteen guys in every little town that they played. Now you're lucky to find one."
In 1995, I spent three days with Johnson, traversing the Delta in search of new talent. Johnson was also looking for a musician named Asie Payton, who had recorded a demo, then disappeared. At dusk on Saturday, we drove down a dirt road, past a sagging white frame church, and pulled up to a little shack at the edge of a soybean field. Johnson plodded up the dirt path, and after convincing the woman at the front door that he was neither a bill collector nor a public official, was told that Asie Payton was there but was asleep. When Johnson returned later, Asie Payton was awake, but he couldn't be persuaded to return to a recording studio. Johnson tried again several times. Two years later, Payton was dead.
That night in 1995 was the occasion of a great discovery-for both Johnson and me. After failing to see Asie Payton, we went looking for something to eat. Johnson found a juke joint in a small Delta town in Sunflower County-a crossroads with a boarded up railroad station and a defunct cotton gin. From the empty street, we could hear the music inside-a wild, hairy racket with a thumping bass drum underneath. Our faces were the only white ones among some twenty Saturday-night revelers. The room was hot and close, bedizened with ratty Christmas decorations and Budweiser signs, a single window fan stirring the smoke inside. There was no stage-the singer and his drummer sat on a folding chair at one end of the room. The music sounded dirty, literally as well as figuratively (like the blues of Elmore James and J.B. Hutto), as if the guitar strings were rusted and the cones in the Peavey bass amp were cracked. The singer was bragging about kicking his woman in the ass. His playing was raucous and boogie-inflected but strangely upbeat, even when he sang, "Feel so bad, feel like breaking someone's arm." This was T-Model Ford; Johnson had signed him up as soon as he had the money. If hard times and suffering qualify man to sing the blues, then T-Model Ford can be said to be overqualified. (Even Burnside is in awe of his credentials.) When T-Model Ford was eleven, his father beat him so severely he lost a testicle. By then, he was working in the fields everyday, plowing behind a mule. He married when he was seventeen, and came home one day to discover his father in bed with his wife. His second wife died after drinking poison. At eighteen, he stabbed a man to death and went to prison. (Working on the chain gang, was an improvement on his home life.) One of his sons-he reckons when he was twenty-six sucker punched him and broke his eardrum.
"A cheerful psychopath" is how Johnson describes T-Model Ford, but "an indomitable force." Johnson recalls how Ford once drove from Greenville, Mississippi, to Detroit for a gig, stopping constantly to ask for directions. (He can't read.) Recently, he spent twenty-four hours waiting patiently at the Seattle airport, after failing to recognize his name on the sign help up by his blues festival escort.
Matthew Johnson and Bruce Watson are on one of their regular visits to see T-Model Ford-he's another one who never answers his phone-and I've joined them. Like many of the Fat Possum artists, T-Model lives in Mississippi Yazoo Delta. It's early summer, and the fields are brown, lightly dusted with the green fuzz of cotton shoots, and the vista stretches for miles; the landscape is almost featureless, except for the occasional piece of farm machinery, a stand of trees, or a cluster of shotgun shacks. The two-lane highway is so flat that the illusion of driving uphill to meet the receding horizon. Now and again, you pass a series of catfish ponds the size of football fields; aquaculture is a relatively recent local attempt to diversify the monoculture of cotton. The stately, columned plantation houses of antebellum South were never features of the Delta landscape; much of the land was still forested at the time of the civil war, and planters established their families in the hill towns to the east, where the heat and disease were less noxious. "You can be lonelier here than anyplace in the world," Johnson says, and most statistics prove that you can be poorer, less healthy, less educated, and less white here than anywhere else in America.
"Why don't we stop in and see Johnny?" Watson says. Johnny is Johnny Farmer, a retired bulldozer operator who reluctantly recorded an album for Fat Possum in 1998 and has been almost completely incommunicado ever since. Farmer hasn't been cashing his royalty checks, and Watson is afraid that he may have died. "I want to talk to T-Model first," Johnson says. "He's been saying he's going to get a Greenville lawyer and take Fat Possum down. He says we're making millions off him."
Greenville is the unofficial capital of the Delta. It appears first as a series of signs rising above the cotton fields on Highway 82: Wal-Mart, John Deere, Taco Bell, Baskin-Robbins, Stogie Shoppe, Pawn Shop-Need Money Stop Here! It is a town of some forty thousand people on the Mississippi River, invisible behind the long ridge of the levee. Beyond it are the offshore casinos to which locals have been turning for economic salvation, and which-along with the recent escalation of crack-related violence-have killed off many of the bars and juke joints in Greenville and the neighboring towns. (More than a decade after it ravaged Northern cities, crack has replaced moonshine as the mainstay of the Delta's underground economy.) We finally locate T-Model's new house, a tidy little prewar Cape Cod set on a tree-lined residential street. Mature oaks shade the yard. His home for the past decade was a run-down trailer in a dangerous part of town. Johnson and Watson helped him find this place when the roof of the trailer fell in; Fat Possum pays the rent. A sullen black woman of indeterminate age comes to the door. This is Stella, T-Model's muse and consort of many years, who is reputed to go blow for blow with him and who inspired the immortal line, "Stella, I'm go' put my shoe in you ass."
T-Model Ford appears at the door with a cane. Despite his obvious infirmity, he gives an impression of irrepressible vitality-this would be a tough man to kill. In deed, his twisted body bears the history of many failed attempts. ("I been shot, I been cut, and nobody get me down," he says in one of his songs.) "How is it?" Johnson says grimly; he's brooding about the threat to get a lawyer. "I'm like a apple on a tree. I'm hanging."
T-Model hobbles over, opens his mouth, and shows us his new dentures-a fine-looking set of teeth. "Only had five of the old ones left," he says, by way of explanation. Encouraged, he proceeds to demonstrate the viability of some of his other body parts. He pulls up his pant leg and points to the scars on his ankles from the two years he spent on a chain gang. There are several stab wounds. And a gimpy leg, crushed by a logging truck, he says.
"I been to Germany," he says out of the blue. "I like Germany. They treat me nice. They love old T-Model."
T-Model pulls a pint of Jack Daniel's from his pocket and takes a swig.
"What's this I hear?" Johnson interrupts. "How you're going to hire some big Greenville lawyer and take Fat Possum down?" T-Model's ebullience is temporarily punctured. "Why would I be getting' a lawyer if I didn't know I needed one?" "What the hell's that supposed to mean?" Johnson says.Judging his little koan a success, T-Model repeats it with greater conviction. "Why would I be getting' a lawyer if I didn't know I needed one?"
Johnson shakes his head and laughs. You get the idea that this exchange is an exercise in role playing, and Johnson's role is that of the patriarch-alternately cajoling and berating, doling out money and threatening to withhold it. It's a role that he and his artist, as Mississippians, seem to be comfortable with. (Johnson's politics are leftist by Mississippi standards-he was upset by the recent vote to retain the state flag, with its Confederate battle-flag motif.) Economic and race relations in Mississippi, like the blues itself, have been shaped by the sharecropping system, under which white plantation owners advanced credit for food and supplies to landless farm laborers. The system is strikingly similar to the music business, especially in its early days, when companies advanced money to artists against their future sales, and then deducted a range of "expenses"-recording, promotion, and overhead. Johnson, you sense, would rather be mistaken for a crook than for a saint, but in the case of, say, T-Model Ford, to whom the label recently advanced some thirty thousand dollars, he seems to be optimistically openhanded. "A seventy-six-, seventy-seven-year-old guy-I'm going to advance future royalties when he needs a new transmission. Eventually," he says, "the records will earn out."
"I admire my artists," Johnson says, "but I don't expect them to be my friends. Junior Kimbrough once told me that he wouldn't respect me if he didn't think I was ripping him off. Any black man in Mississippi who trusts a white man has got to be on crack."
Johnson mentions to T-Model Ford that we're going to visit Johnny Farmer and asks if he'd like to come along. "Sure, I'll go see ol' Johnny."
As we drive out to Route 1, T-Model talks incessantly, alternating between the first person and the third person, as he relates a series of anecdotes that have no apparent connection. "Can't fight as good as I used to," he says, "but if T-Model gets his hands on him good, then belongs to me good. Been married five times. No more. Best time I had with women is shackin' with 'em. I first got married when I was seventeen, eighteen year old. I hadn't had a woman. My daddy had to tell me how to do it. I got a girlfriend in Sweden. Or maybe Switzerland. I tell you what, these niggers around Greenville, they been lyin' to me all these years when they say white women can't fuck." When Johnson first met T-Model Ford, he was unable to look a white woman in the eye.
Johnny Farmer's trailer is on the edge of a soybean field. A big, eighties-vintage satellite dish full of bulging garbage bags sits near the entrance. Farmer comes to the door-a tall, stooped, light-skinned man with a long, mournful face under a Crown Royal cap. If he's surprised by this visit, he doesn't show it. He returns to his seat on an old plaid couch, chewing tobacco, his eyes moving between his visitors and Burt Lancaster on the television screen, while stroking his knees with his delicate hands, the fingernails like blanched almonds.
"We just wanted to check up on you, make sure you were doing O.K." Watson says. "It's been a long time. You been playing any?" "I joined the church, and I haven't played since." "I'm a little bit of a Christian myself," T-Model Ford says, in deference to his host's sensibilities. "You can't do both," Farmer says. "You got to be for Him or against Him."
This is a sentiment one often hears in Mississippi, where roadside churches seem to outnumber grocery stores and Baptist and Methodist congregations are the principal cultural points of reference. Even before Robert Johnson was reputed to have sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his musical gift, the blues was perceived as the sinful twin of gospel, the Devil's music. Robert Johnson's harrowing "Hellhound on My Trail" is the song of a man who, despite his apostasy, firmly believes in his own damnation. If the blues sometimes seems synonymous with depression or lovesickness or simply feeling "blue", it's also personified as an active and malignant force, an evil spirit taking possession of a man's soul. ("Oh, in my room I bowed down to pray," Son House, one of the founding fathers of the blues, sang in "Preachin' the Blues," in the thirties. "Oh, in my room I bowed down to pray, say the blues come 'long and they drove my spirit away.")
T-Model Ford, meanwhile, continues to shuttle dizzyingly between stories in which he's the victim and those in which he's the villain. But even Johnson's description of T-Model Ford as a cheerful psychopath hardly prepares me for a hair-raising account of how he took one of his wives and several of their children down to the levee and threatened to chop off her head with an axe while the children begged him not to kill her. T-Model Ford smiles, and his eyes positively sparkle as he imitates the falsetto squeals of the children: "Daddy, please don't kill Mommy. Daddy, please. Please, Daddy, please."
There is a stunned silence, until finally Farmer says, "Maybe your daddy didn't beat you right."
T-Model then tells us the story of his daddy. After this recitation of his warped family history, he ends with a bleak poetic image. "I see a stand of cypress trees," he says, and takes a swig from the pint. "And they know they look like the other trees, but they don't know how they got there or who they're related to or anything like that. Sometimes I think that's how it should be with peoples. Maybe it's better you don't know." This is my blues talking a stark, painful image of alienation.
Back at the office in Water Valley one evening, after several drinks, Johnson attempt to educate me about the Fat Possum mission, grabbing CDs from a bookshelf and jamming them into the player. He wants to trace the history of a certain sound. First, he selects a track from Son House. Johnson listens intently, cocking his head as if he might hear something new this time. "Nobody has that intensity now," he says. "The blues was the rap music of its time. In the twenties, blues was a big seller. Charley Patton was billed as 'the Devil's Stepchild.' Then, after the Depression, nobody wanted it. But when rock and roll cane along it was all blues chords. It had the same spirit.
He replaces the CD with one of his own recordings, in which he has paired his bluesmen with contemporary musicians" Johnny Farmer and Organized Noize; Junior Kimbrough and a posse of hip-hop kids from Memphis. "I though, If this record doesn't sell, at least it will piss off the blues purists." He jams in another CD. The opening riff sounds familiar, but I don't quite know where we are until I hear the voice of Beck-the ur-slacker. "That's the opening riff of Dr. John's 'I Walk on Guilded Splinters,'" he says excitedly.
He searches the shelves for another CD. "Kurt Cobain really nailed that Leadbelly song. You can't cover blues songs anymore, but Cobain nailed it." Not finding Nirvana, he comes up with Ol' Dirty Bastard, the hip-hop renegade, screaming, "I like it raw."
Johnson is aware that Burnside and company are the last of the genuine bluesmen, and he has been branching out: he signed a punk duo called 20 Miles and Bob Log III, who plays slide guitar and performs in a motorcycle helmet that has a telephone attached to it. "Johnson assures me that he is huge in Japan.) The truth is that, after years of scamming and fending wolves from the door, Fat Possum seems to be working. Having racked up a million dollars in debt, the operation isn't exactly in the black yet, but last year it broke even on operating expenses for the first time. Fat Possum songs are suddenly the sound tracks of the moment: Burnside's music is on "The Sopranos" and in Michael Mann's bio-pic of Muhammad Ali; Burnside is also on "Big Bad Love," along with T-Model Ford, Junior Kimbrough, and Asie Payton; and there are more than a half-dozen Fat Possum songs in the upcoming "The Badge." Buddy Guy, a classic Chicago "urban" blues artist, covers seven Fat Possum songs on his recent album, "Sweet Tea," and Mandy Stein, the daughter of the A.&R. legend Seymour Stein, is just finishing a full-length documentary on the label. These days, Johnson's checks are clearing. He still refuses to drink brand-name vodka, but he's no longer shutting down the bars in Oxford every night. At times, he seems to be on the verge of realizing that he has fewer and fewer reasons to be miserable.
Bowery Ballroom, New York City. Cedell Davis is singing, his squat, toadlike body motionless in his wheelchair, his twisted, crippled left hand clutching a kitchen knife, which he slides up and down the frets of a guitar tuned to some unknown scale, his equally deformed right hand strumming, drenching the audience in murky chords. "I hope I touch her before she gets old," he moans. Some four hundred people, few of them even a third his age, are bobbing on the dance floor beneath him. Sitting in a folding chair close to the stage is T-Model Ford, who clutches a drink in one hand and with the other frantically beckons a tall, striking redhead, thirty-one-year-old Heather Bennett. While her boyfriend watches suspiciously, she bends down to hear the bluesman. "Damn, ain't you one fine-looking white woman," he shouts.
"I'm not a starstruck person, but I'm blown away to meet him," Bennett says later. "These people, it's so amazing that they're still here."
After his set, Davis is wheeled away, and Paul (Wine) Jones takes the stage. "I'm a Mississippi plowboy in New York City," Jones shouts into the mike-although he looks more like a Chicago bluesman, in his black fedora and shiny two-toned red trousers. He's lucky to be here in lower Manhattan, having narrowly escaped incarceration in Iowa after an incident with a coed in a bathroom. (A little later, on the tour bus, T-Model Ford tried to stab him.) As Jones kicks off his set, Cedell Davis accepts a beer from a fan, balancing the cup on the flat of his shaking palm as he lifts it to his lips. A Swedish journalist crouches down and quizzes him about his musical roots, writing his answers on a notepad on her knee. A clean-cut young man in a white polo shirt approaches me as I hand Davis another beer. "Excuse me," he says. "Are you who I think you are?" He pauses, almost trembling. "Are you...Matthew Johnson?" He seems so disappointed by my reply that I feel obliged to tell him that I'm a friend of Matthew's. He introduces himself as Tom Placke, an pairing filmmaker. "This music," he says, gesturing toward the stage. "It tugs your heart right out of your chest. I got 'Ass Pocket of Whiskey' when it came out, and I've been getting every Fat Possum record ever since. The music is like nothing else that's out there. This is all I listen to. You know the motto, 'We're Trying Out Best'?" he asks. "Well," he says, apparently unable to give up the idea that I may be Matthew Johnson, "you're doing a great job."
Paul Jones dedicates his last song to John Lee Hooker, who died the night before. The audience cheers and claps in homage to the late, great bluesman, while T-Model Ford, Hooker's contemporary, waves to a blonde dressed in a baby-blue halter top. "Come on over and talk to old T-Model," he shouts. "Forget about them other guys. I'm the original hoochie-coochie man."