Mention Mississippi to blues fans, and chances are their heads will start swimming with the raw sounds of the Delta. But not all great Mississippi blues have a lowland address. In the hill country just to the north and east, there has always existed a bracing but unsung blues scene. Now, thanks to the efforts of the small, Oxford-based label Fat Possum, we’re finally getting to hear some of the region’s best blues talent.
A good place to start is with 68-year-old singer and guitarist R.L. Burnside, from Holly Springs. On Bad Luck City (1991), his first Fat Possum album and the label’s maiden release, Burnside seemed uncomfortable with the recording process. Too many of the tracks sound starched or souped up, which gives them an artificially modern feel. But on Too Bad Jim, a far more expressive and supple work, Burnside delivers a searing set of songs anchored in tradition, demonstrating why the Mississippi hill country could well be the final blues frontier.
Cut from the same mold that produced such Mississippi slide masters as Robert Johnson, Bukka White and Fred McDowell, Burnside has a bit of Delta blues running through his guitar style and vocals. But it’s the hill country’s droning rhythms, based very much on the drum patterns of the region’s fife-and-drum bands, that separate Burnside’s blues from those of his Delta friends.
On Jim, Burnside lays on top of such rhythms a series of tortured, screechy slide licks that go with Calvin Jackson’s wonderfully frenetic beat-keeping and son Dwayne Burnside’s boss-sounding bass (second guitarist Kenny Brown completes the band). Their delivery of standards like “Shake ‘Em On Down,” “Old Black Mattie” or “Goin’ Down South,” in effect, creates a juke-joint rave-up in your living room.
2. When My First Wife Left Me
3. Short-Haired Woman
4. Old Black Mattie
5. Fireman Ring The Bell
2. Miss Glory B.
3. .44 Pistol
4. Death Bell Blues
5. Goin’ Down South