R.L. Burnside, Matthew Block Recording

Charles Farrell

By Charles Farrell

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

On an early spring afternoon in 2004, with the Mississippi Delta just erupting into full green, I spent an afternoon with R.L. Burnside at his home in Holly Springs, Mississippi. R.L. lived in a run-down trailer, surrounded by his kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews. He'd had a heart attack recently, and it had slowed him down considerably. He watched me through clouded eyes, a half-smile frozen on his face. He was the last of the genuine Delta blues musicians — the only true voice left — and his life story was evident simply from looking at him.

The last of the genuine Delta blues musicians unfiltered

Somehow the engineers at Fat Possum Records discovered that Burnside was able to convey that life story either recorded unvarnished or augmented by contemporary innovations like sampling, beats and loops. I can't recommend one approach over the other. Each R.L. Burnside album has its treasures. The Matthew Block Recording is particularly potent, though, in bringing R.L. to you with no buffers, the Delta blues delivered in its purest form. "Walkin'Blues" exhibits the vocal flexibility (in Burnside's case, a semi-yodel) that's endemic to Delta singing at its best; "Goin'Down South" is nothing short of hypnotic.

That afternoon in Holly Springs, Burnside told me that he was taught to play the blues by fellow Mississippians Fred McDowell and Muddy Waters. That may well be true, but R.L. Burnside was an original, every bit as singular as the two giants who inspired him.