R.L. Burnside was born in 1926 near Oxford, Mississippi, and has spent most of his life between there and Holly Spring and Independence, often living in the country and doing farm work. He began singing blues and playing guitar in the 1950's. Although his father was a blues guitarist, R.L. was more impressed by other older local musicians such as Fred McDowell, Ranie Burnette, Jesse Vortis, Willie Thomas, and a man known only as "Temp." Burnside played at juke joints and house parties, usually by himself, performing locally known traditional blues and his own versions of the current blues record hits by artists like Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Jimmy Rogers, Howlin' Wolf, themselves all former Mississippi bluesmen. But R.L. was restless in the 1950s and spent a number of years out of music seeking better economic opportunities in Tunica over in the Delta and then in Chicago and Memphis. Around 1959 he returned to Mississippi to become a farm worker and raise a large family, performing blues on the side after work and on weekends. In 1967 blues researcher George Mitchell made the first recordings of R.L. Burnside, and half an LP of his songs was issued on the Arhoolie label. They were powerful country blues, and they earned Burnside enough of a reputation to secure occasional festival appearances and tours in the following years. When Mitchell found him, Burnside's electric guitar was broken, and so he recorded playing Mitchell's acoustic guitar. This caused him to be presented outside his community for many years as an old fashioned country blues artist and a solo performer. Actually he had been updating and expanding his music from the time he first began playing blues in the 1950's. In the early 1970's I caught him at a picnic near Senatobia playing electric guitar with a drummer. His wife Alice would sing with him sometimes , and most of their children developed a tent for singing or playing an instrument. By the late 1970's his sons Joseph and Daniel and their brother-in-law Calvin Jackson had formed the Sound Machine, whose main gig was backing up R.L. They enabled the family patriarch to hold a crowd of young dancers, including a growing number of local white kids. Among the young men in the audience there were always a few aspiring guitarists watching R.L. and learning musical ideas, just as his own boys had done a few years before. As Daniel grew older, he got married and moved to Davenport, Iowa. Joseph still lives in the countryside near R.L. Calvin Jackson continued to work with R.L. for a while, as well as with Junior Kimbrough. R.L. raised more sons and grandsons to take their places and has continued to work with an evolving Sound Machine.
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