Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside died last Thursday morning, September 1st, at St. Francis Hospital. The 78-year-old guitarist hadn't played in years, save a few impromptu back-porch performances for friends and family at his home near Holly Springs, Mississippi. But he was still a vital component of the hill-country music scene.
Burnside, along with Junior Kimbrough and Othar Turner, who died in 1998 and 2003, respectively, were the holy trinity for Memphis blues fans who traveled up and down the highways of north Mississippi to party at Junior's Place, where Kimbrough and Burnside boogied all night long, and to Turner's legendary goat barbecues, which could stretch on for days. Their music was both timeless and out of time, a primal, chaotic force that seemingly swirled out of the muddy ground and into their bodies, released through guitar chords or fife blasts into the humid air. Hearing Burnside tear through "Jumper on the Line," sipping moonshine to Kimbrough's "You Better Run," or bending and swaying to Turner's "Shimmy She Wobble," you knew: This is Mississippi.
Luckily, their music lives on through their children and grandchildren -- people like David Kimbrough, Jr., who's back playing after a stay in prison on a parole violation, Duwayne Burnside, who can't seem to keep a juke joint open for more than a week but nevertheless plays circles around more business-minded musicians, and Sharde Turner, who has been playing fife for nearly all of her 14 years.
Other regional musicians too have taken up the cause. Since inception, the North Mississippi Allstars -- formed by brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, along with bassist Chris Chew -- has served to showcase dozens of hill-country blues talents. The band has recorded with Othar Turner on numerous occasions, and Duwayne Burnside became a full-fledged member for a few years. When the Allstars performed at the Bonnaroo festival last year, they took the entire Burnside clan -- R.L. and his wife Alice Mae, sons Duwayne and Garry, and grandsons Cedric and Cody -- with them. They've turned countless jam-band fans on to Kimbrough and Burnside's Fat Possum recordings, and Luther himself produced Turner's two albums for the Birdman label.
It's fitting that the group is celebrating the release of its fourth studio album, Electric Blue Watermelon, this week. The album, initially conceived as a tribute to the late Lee Baker, serves as a perfect homage to the forefathers of the north Mississippi sound. From the album's opener, "Mississippi Boll Weevil," on through "Horseshoe," hill-country blues and driving rock music merge into a stunning, earthy sound. Slide guitar and thumping bass compete with Cody Dickinson's electric washboard and propulsive drumming as a bevy of special guests -- including Lucinda Williams, Al Kapone, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band -- weave in and out of the mix.
There are so many glorious moments on this album -- the tear-your-shoes-off-and-shake-your-ass party anthem "Bang Bang Lulu," the over-the-top wah-wah song "Stompin' My Foot," and the funereal "Mean Ol' Wind Died Down" (which features the Tate County Singers, Othar Turner's daughters and granddaughters). But the real show-stoppers on Electric Blue Watermelon are "Horseshoe," "Moonshine," and "No Mo," exquisitely detailed songs that document the history of the entire hill-country scene through music.
"Horseshoe" opens with a measure of music played by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, which quickly fades to Luther Dickinson's stripped-down guitar chords and husky voice as he takes listeners from pastoral Horseshoe Lake, where Memphis musician Lee Baker was murdered in '96, to a funeral outside Gravel Springs, where Turner and his daughter Bernice Turner Pratcher (who died of different causes on the same day) are laid to rest. Dickinson's descriptions are spare but all-knowing as he zooms from location to location, lovingly looking down on his people.
On "Moonshine," the band travels to Junior's Place, still a holy site although it was torched nearly a decade ago. "Cracked cymbals and the queens of Africa/Ashes to ashes and dust to dust/The club burned down to the concrete floor/The old jukebox won't play anymore," the Allstars sagely note, before taking us to a scene where "Old Gabe used to blow up and down the picnic ground/With Bobby Ray Watson and young Kenny Brown."
"I miss the moonshine and the old times/Sitting in with the house band/And the bootleggers of the bottomland," Luther, making his bid for poet laureate of north Mississippi, laments in a elegiac tribute to his former stomping grounds.
With rapper Al Kapone in tow, the Allstars also revisit one of their earliest songs, "No Mo." "It just ain't the same/It ain't like it used to be 'round here," Luther sings before Kapone blasts off a series of rhymes that place "No Mo" firmly in the 21st century.
To be in your early 30s -- or in Cody Dickinson's case, late 20s -- and already feel nostalgic for "the old days" might be a sad state of affairs. But the Allstars' songwriting skills are so great that beauty somehow manages to transcend the gravity of the situation. These lyrics are pure poetry, breathing life into long-lost scenes that a fortunate few were able to witness. This is Mississippi, these songs proclaim. This is Mississippi.