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R. L. Burnside Was The Essence Of The North Mississippi Hill Country


R. L. Burnside was a primary exponent of the North Mississippi hill country's unique style of Blues. His voice was a powerful and expressive instrument. His acoustic and electric guitar playing often droning and hypnotic, especially since many of his works were based on a single chord, but most of all, his guitar playing was powerful.

Robert Lee Burnside was born in Mississippi in about 1926 and spent most of his life around Holly Springs, Mississippi. His family was poor, spending some time in Chicago for economic reasons from the mid-1940s through the mid-1950s. Interestingly Chicago had only a little impact on his music.

Back in Mississippi, Burnside made his living fishing, farming and playing guitar. After killing a man during a dice game, Burnside spent time in the notorious Parchman Farm prison. He said, "I didn't mean to kill nobody. I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head and two times in the chest. Him dying was between him and the Lord."

Burnside claimed that his short stay in prison was thanks to his employer who argued that he needed Burnside to drive tractor.


Burnside learned guitar mostly from Mississippi Fred McDowell, but listed John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Lightnin' Hopkins as his main influences. Yet, Burnside's sound was heavily slanted towards the North Mississippi hill country far more than any of those influences.

In the late 1960s Burnside started a modest recording career with Arhoolie Records. A move to Fat Possum Records came in the early 1990s, staying with them until he stopped recording after the death of his friend Junior Kimbrough in 1998. A number of his later recordings were praised by leading lights of Alternative Rock and brought about a fair amount of sale among fans of Hip Hop and Techno.


R. L. Burnside died in 2005 and remains a strong force in the Blues, still seen as many as the best example of the hard edged North Mississippi sound. He is survived by a number of family who are some pretty fine musicians. Heredity does count for something.

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