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Bluesman R.L. Burnside Dies

R.L. Burnside, a staple in the Mississippi Delta blues scene, died yesterday morning in Memphis, Tenn. of apparent complications rising from a recent heart attack. He was 78. He had been in the hospital for almost three weeks before his death, and while no official cause of death has been announced, Burnside suffered a heart attack last year and, according to his label, never fully recovered.

The native Mississippian was born on Nov. 21, 1926 in Harmontown, Miss., in the north Mississippi hill country. He spent most of his life in the region, working as a sharecropper and commercial fisherman and playing guitar on the weekends at house parties. It wasn’t until 1968 that Burnside was recorded for the first time. Folklorist George Mitchell recorded him for the Arhoolie label and Burnside soon had albums on the Vogue, Swingmaster and Highwater labels.

From that time, Burnside had done some small tours, but major attention and touring was absent until the 1980s, when he was invited to perform at several European blues festivals. He was the first artist to sign to Fat Possum records in 1991 and his notoriety continued to grow. In 1992, Burnside and neighbor and fellow musician (and soon-to-be labelmate) Junior Kimbrough were featured in the documentary Deep Blues and that same year his Fat Possum debut, Too Bad Jim, was released.

He earned his hipster cred when he and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion released a collaborative album titled A Ass Pocket of Whiskey on the venerable Matador label in 1996. While hardcore blues fans decried the album as Burnside’s sell out, the album was widely well received and converted at least a few Smiths fans to the blues. Before his death, he released an additional five albums, all on Fat Possum, while former labels re-released many of his previous albums.

Never one to shy away from new sounds and ideas (as can be seen in his work with Jon Spencer), Burnside’s albums weren’t always revered as authoritative blues tomes. Come On In featured techno sounds and beats with the production of Beck mixmasters Tom Rothrock and Alec Empire of Digital Hardcore. Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down draws its influences from modern Chicago and Texas blues, with a pinch of R&B, while A Bothered Mind, his last album, covers everything from Bob Dylan to his origins in Delta blues.

Burnside is survived by his wife of more than 50 years, Alice Mae; 12 children; and numerous grandchildren.

Originally Published