I was very fortunate to see R.L. Burnside perform when I was 13. I was fairly unfamiliar with his music at the time, but the show changed my ideas about guitar playing. I had heard his collaboration with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, An Ass Pocket of Whiskey, which was good, but I was unfamiliar with his music, the music of his family, the traditions of the Northern Mississippi style for which he was known —I was completely unprepared for what I was to experience at that show. R.L. performed with his son Cedric on drums and Kenny Brown on slide guitar. The show was legendary. He hit the stage at about 10 P.M. and played without a break until 2 A.M. I have never seen anything of this magnitude since then.
I didn’t know it when I was in the moment, experiencing this music, but Burnside’s guitar was tuned to the same ‘Spanish’/Open G tuning that a number of the Paganini Sonatas I was learning were written in. The big revelation came when I was studying his music and realized that simply from watching him for four hours straight, I had learned exactly where to place my fingers to recreate these sounds of Northern Mississippi blues. As it turned out, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and so many others had also performed in this key. It wasn’t long before I not only set about learning Burnside’s music, but started to learn songs like ‘Boogie Chillen’, ‘If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day’, ‘Rollin’ n’ Tumblin’, and other classics of the genre. Burnside was the gateway to Junior Kimbrough (who was appropriated for white audiences by The Black Keys), T-Model Ford, Lurrie Bell, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Junior Wells, Robert Nighthawk, Hound Dog Taylor, and literally a hundred other musicians.
Aesthetically, Burnside’s music was pure —no sociopolitical or spiritual pretensions lyrically- the hypnotic rhythms and his voice had more soul than anything I had heard at the time. I consider myself blessed to have been exposed to this at the age of 13, it may have saved me from MTV and hip-hop. I consider this to have been a key experience during the formative years of my psyche, another formative experience for which I am eternally grateful. R.L. Burnside died when I was 22 years old, when I was in college studying engineering and computer science.