R. L. Burnside (1926 - 2005)

Updated: February 24, 2011

Rural L. (“R.L.”) Burnside was born November 23, 1926, in Lafayette County, in north Mississippi near the university town of Oxford. Living for much of his life in and near Holly Springs in Marshall County, Mississippi (with a stint in Chicago during the 1950s), Burnside worked as a sharecropper, fisherman, and part-time musician.

Rural L. (“R.L.”) Burnside was born November 23, 1926, in Lafayette County, in north Mississippi near the university town of Oxford. Living for much of his life in and near Holly Springs in Marshall County, Mississippi (with a stint in Chicago during the 1950s), Burnside worked as a sharecropper, fisherman, and part-time musician. From the late 1960s into the 1980s, several blues enthusiasts recorded Burnside’s interpretations of the local blues style associated with the north Mississippi hill country, and these recordings were issued on various small independent recording companies.

From 1992 through 2004 he recorded several albums for Fat Possum Records, the Oxford, Mississippi, based label devoted to recording and promoting the music of an older generation of previously unknown country-blues performers associated with north Mississippi, including fellow Marshall County resident Junior Kimbrough.

Connecting the origins of blues music with the living conditions of working-class African Americans in the deep South, Burnside once asserted, ‘‘The way people was treated back in those olden days, that’s what the blues is all about. Working for the man, you couldn’t say nothing, but you could sing about it, you know?’’ His direct influences included Mississippi Fred McDowell, a childhood neighbor from whom he learned songs; Muddy Waters, his cousin by marriage; and John Lee Hooker.

Burnside, however, was not simply a folk-art preservation act; he recorded albums in the 1990s that mixed traditional blues with indie-punk guitar rock and hip-hop beats. Many blues purists criticized these recordings, but Burnside reached a broader, and younger, audience than blues music had found in many years.

Many of Burnside’s best songs tell the stories of his life, including “R.L.’s Story,” about the murders of his father, two brothers, and two uncles, all in separate incidents within a twelve-month period in Chicago. Burnside’s style of blues was described by critic Robert Christgau as “primal drone” and was characterized by producer and critic Robert Palmer as a “churning, jamming one-chord exercise in stamina and mass-hypnosis.”

Burnside released more than a dozen full-length albums before his death in a Memphis hospital on September 1, 2005, following a heart attack the previous year.

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"R. L. Burnside." (2017) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved March 27, 2017, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=5

R.L. Burnside