When the opening chords of this album stutter across your consciousness they set you thinking of dark nights and unsettling tales, of crawling across unknown country in the dead of night.
“Two Brothers and my Father were killed in Chicago
that’s why I don’t like living there.”
The gravelly voice of R.L. Burnside sweeps across you like a desolate wind. There’s great warmth in his voice though. It’s the voice of a sharecropper from the Mississippi hill country, who’s seen it all and wants to lay down his life story before death.
“Let me tell you people, just before I go,
these hard times will kill you, yes I know.”
The LP reminds me of Johnny Cash’s final album. There’s an urgency there, the urgency of someone who’s been given a voice and a platform once more, perhaps for one last time, and by God he knows how to use it. Time and again Burnside cuts to the chase and tells stories that speak across the generations. It’s the storytelling of someone who cut his teeth playing for 30 years in the local Juke Joints of Mississippi: clipped, and pared down to the bare essence. Hard boiled stories of whiskey and women and of living. Real living, on the land, you can see it in the cracks of his face.
These songs aren’t just an old man singing the blues though. Although he takes influence from the Blues (Burnside learnt his rhythmic style from his neighbour, Mississippi Fred Mc Dowell), there’s a lot that’s contemporary in his music, Hip Hop scratching, dope beats and studio trickery sit remarkably comfortably with his down home delta blues style. It’s an album that takes the Blues on a great leap forward.
Bad Luck City takes from Dr Dre’s production techniques, using those sliding key sounds that came to define the US urban sound of the early 90’s. Once more, muted scratching sits in the mix as Burnside tells his tough luck blues.
At the end of the day, in the twilight of a man’s demise, there’s no certainty that you will listen to the Nothing Man.
If you do want to hear what he has to say, and it is worth it, R.L. Burnside’s excellent long player “Wish I was in Heaven Sitting Down” was released on Fat Possum Records at the turn of the century, but you can still buy it directly from them today.