The blues aren’t dead yet. But, compared to, say, 1971, they’ve got one foot and two thirds of the other in the grave. Let’s admit that.
Blues fans haven’t heard as much groundbreaking stuff in recent years as we did in previous decades, when dinosaurs like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker roamed the earth and were still cranking out new material — or at least phenomenal reinterpretations of old stuff.
In fact, the whole tribute-duets era of the 1990s really turned this hardcore fan off to new blues recordings altogether for a time, with a few exceptions. B.B. King paired with hip-hop producers and rappers? Give me a break. Undignified for everyone involved. Made me quite sad. I fled to the box-set aisle and fortified my collection, diving deeper into the blues and R&B from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.
Not making the blanket statement saying that all these collaborations were all junk. Just saying, it wasn’t, for example, the quality of Hooker and Canned Heat throwing down the awesome blues rock they did back in the 1960s, back when I was literally in my infancy.
The one exception in the groundbreaking department was Fat Possum Records, which, to be fair, also did its share of undignified remixing in an attempt to get the Jon Spencer Generation hipped to ancient treasures like R.L. Burnside and Asie Payton. The remix/duet stuff was a little interesting, but not really earth-shattering.
But when the principals of Fat Possum just set up shop in the Mississippi Hill Country and let the tapes roll and made traditional electric blues recordings, however, the unfiltered, raw blues that came forth was a beautiful sonic thing. Oddly, the primitive sound was at once new and old as dirt, a salve for all of us wearied by contemporary blues’s double-dubbed, slick horns and digitally enhanced harmonicas made to sound vintage. This stuff was so powerful, in fact, that a whole new “deep blues” genre sprouted up that now includes the North Mississippi All-Stars, the Black Keys, the Black Diamond Heavies, and — some might say — the White Stripes.
Another great service to bluesdom Fat Possum did was reissue seminal field recordings done decades previous by folklorist George Mitchell, which had seen the light of release by various blues labels over the years but never rose too far out of the swamp of obscurity. Mitchell, as pointed out in this excellent Sunday Blues breakdown, wasn’t trying to prove any theory of musical evolution as some of his peers driving southern byways might have been. He just was documenting what was going on. Over the last decade, Fat Possum has collected and reissued much Mitchell material pertaining to the hill country.
Among the musicians Mitchell recorded was future Fat Possum star R.L. Burnside, who passed away in 2005. Thankfully, today we have access to them blues, issued as First Recordings on Fat Possum. No jacked up bass is here, no cracking distortion a la the Blues Explosion, just R.L. unfiltered.
Check out the stark “Walkin’ Blues” and its stripped-down, powerful statement of a young R.L. and his guitar, doing the gutbucket thing. Sure, Joe Biden might call Scranton hardscrabble, and Sarah Palin might allege her Wasilla is the home of some tough six-packers, but one spin of this song and we can tell how freaking hard life in north Mississippi must have been — and remains — making the veep candidates and their “poor-off” sound like the joke it is. This is emotion, channeled through a slide guitar. This, my friends, is the blues.
Like it? Go check out the whole shebang.