The Bluesmobile's Between the Seats with R.L. Burnside

R.L. Burnside talks about getting the name "Reverend", eating neck bones, and his musical family

RL BurnsideThis is the latest entry in the Between the Seats weekly feature, a collaboration between Elwood’s BluesMobile, the nation’s longest-running syndicated Blues music radio show, hosted by Dan Aykroyd as Elwood Blues, and American Blues Scene Magazine, the recognized leader in blues music news.

Every week, Elwood Blues digs deep down between the seats and pulls another interesting, exciting, revealing interview with a blues personality from the archives. 

This week’s “Between The Seats” features an intriguing snapshot of one of the most influential men in Louisiana’s music: the late Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown from way back in September, 2001. 

Elwood: Alright, I’m Elwood Blues and I’d like to welcome R.L Burnside to the BluesMobile.

R.L.: I’m really proud, thank you for inviting me over, Elwood.

Alright, R.L., now for our listeners who don’t know much about you, can you please give us some background about who you are and where you’re from?

Yeah, I’m from Mississippi, I was grew up on the plantation in Mississippi, grew up pretty close to Fred McDowell and Rainy Barnett and watched them guys play guitar, and that’s where, where I learn it from. Just watching them around Coldwater, Mississippi.

Is that where you were born? Coldwater?

Yeah, well I was born, I’m from Aquid, a place they call Cottage Hill. And we stayed there till I was seven years old. And my grandmother and them moved, my mother moved up to Coldwater cause the same man’s plantation, you know, his son had a farm up at Coldwater and he had one in Harmon Town. And we just moved up there, he sold the one cause they talking about putting that sawdust lake up there you know, and we went moved up there. And we stayed round now up till I was about 19 years old.

When was the first time you saw Fred McDowell?

Well, I was about eight or nine when I first saw him. He lived pretty close to us for a while, you know. And Rainy Barnett was married to my mother’s sister, auntie of mine. And uh, they played together, you know. When I got where I learned how to play, I’d go out and play with Fred on house parties and things, juke joints on weekends.

So you two would play together?

Well no, he’d play a while, and then I’d play a while.

Now what were those house parties like that you used to play? Describe ’em.

Oh, they was great, used to be a lot of people there. Breakin the house, them old houses, people breakin the floor in. Break a hole in the floor!

You could play all night there, and maybe make ten dollars and all the whiskey you could drink, you know! Wasn’t making much money, but you’d enjoy it.

How many people would be at these house parties?

Well, a lot of times it would be seventy, seventy-five, and that was a lot of people back in them days, you know.

Did Fred McDowell teach you anything on guitar?

 No, but I watched him, you know, watched him I just watch him. My granddaddy used to go over to his house and play on Sunday, and I’d go over there with him and watch them play till I learnt how.

Who else were some of the people that you’d see?

Well, Rainy Barnett was married to my auntie, and he played guitar you know. When I came up here forties, early forties, Muddy Waters was married to my first cousin, Anna May, and I didn’t know it, I knew his music, but I didn’t know it till I came. And when I got up here, he’s married to her, and I’d go over to his house two, three nights outta the week, and watch him, listen to him play. And go down, watch him on Friday night, Saturday night him playing.

Wow. So what was Muddy Waters like?

Oh, he was a good guy. I liked his music.

You didn’t know his music before you met him though?

I’d done heard some of his music, you know. But I didn’t know he was married to my first cousin.

That’s a nice surprise when you find out Muddy Waters is married to your cousin!

Yeah, I didn’t know that.

Now I know it was kinda hard living here. Tell us about your time living here in Chicago.

Well I wasn’t… wasn’t too hard when I was living here cause I was living here cause I left in ’48 and times wasn’t as bad then, but I left and got married and didn’t come back. And about two years after I left here, my people, some of my people got killed, you know.

Yeah, I know you sing some songs about that on the new album. So what’s the story behind that, tell us a little bit about that. Who got killed and what happened?

Well my two uncles and my two brothers and my father. They said people ganged them up and killed them. But I wasn’t up here about two years, I didn’t know.

So that was after you were already gone?

Yeah. I’d been gone about two years.

Alright. I know you’ve been off the road for a while, and now you’re back on the road, how’s it goin out here, these last couple of weeks?

Well, it’s going pretty good. I like it. As long as I’m able to stay healthy, you know. I like it.

Have you had a chance to listen to this new CD a couple of times?

Yeah, I listened to it, two, three, four times.

Now its very different from your other CDs. Tell me about the CD, try and describe it.

Well I like it. One of the band’s that’s playing on there, we did it together, I met them in the studio. But the other one, I don’t know who they is, you know, I never saw them. They did remix it you know with my voice. I’d done the vocals and they playing.

Did they have you just by yourself just recording the vocals in a separate studio?

Yeah. And uh, just uh, Kenny playing on one. They had him in there with me one time. And they used a couple of the ones that we already put out, you know. Me and my sons put out Sound Machine Groove. They used that with some more music, different kind of music, and it sounds good.

Tell the listeners who the Sound Machine Groove is.

They’re my sons.

What sons, which ones?

Dwayne, Daniel, and Joseph.

Do you guys still play together?

We play every once in a while. They got another band now. My baby boy plays now, Gary, he plays with the Mississippi All-Stars. And Dwayne got him another band, he living in Memphis you know. And just me and Kenny and Cedric, my grandson, playing together for about seven, eight years.

Now talk a little bit about Junior Kimbrough. I know he was one of your close friends before he passed away.

Yeah, I knowed him for about, about twenty years. He was a good friend of mine, and I loved his music. I met him, like I said about twenty years ago, he was, I’d heard him, but I’d never had saw him, you know. He was down there, at a place just below my house. Where I lived, where I was living in Tate county. And we reside there gambling, a guy wanted to go over and watch him, got me to come over there. So he got me to come over and watch him. I said okay, I came over there and we got out there. And Junior was playing then. I heard “One on the House,” and I saw him, he had heard of me, and I had heard of him, but we’d never saw one another. And when he got that song out, I shook hands with him, told him who I was, he tell me who he was. So from then on, when he’s playing somewhere on the weekends, he’d call me, if I was playing somewhere I’d call him, we’d go together. Cause he was a good guy.

Can you talk a little bit about playing with him, at his juke joint?

Yeah we played at his juke joint, and sometimes I’d play when I know I lived close to it at one time. And I’d play, and the people I’d, I’d go out every weekend.

Tell our listeners what a juke joint is, I’m sure a lot of them don’t know. Describe Junior’s juke joint, or any juke joint.

Yeah, they’s bout the same thing. A lot of peoples be in, packed up in there, ain’t no big place, and then called them clubs, then they call them the juke joints, you know. Juke or whatever, you know. And I like to play at them juke joints.

Who was the first person that you ever heard play the blues, do you remember?

Yeah, like I said Fred McDowell.

He was the very first?

Very first time. And Rainy Barnett.

Do you have any, any other people that are inspirations, whether it be a blues artist or other people that you look up to.

Well, I like John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins. I like a lot of the blues players, BB King, you know a lot of those guys. But the people now just begin to realize that the blues is the roots of all the music, where music started from.

What do you think when you see your crowd at concerts and you see a lot of kids out there?

Well, now you see it. When I started the first record with the Blues Explosion, that started the young people coming to the clubs now where I be playing. There’s a lot of young people coming there when the clubs start filling up, cause it lot of old people like it you know, and a lot of them young people love it.

Now what do you think, your blues, these albums don’t sound like any other blues out there.

No, I don’t think so.

So describe your sound.

Well I play my sound is from the feeling, how I feelin’ about the blues.

Talk a little bit about the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. And how you hooked up with those guys.

Yeah, them guys was, they heard one of my CDs you know, and they called the record company and they told me, asked me would I open for them, and I said yeah, I’d open for ’em. and we’d be sittin back in the dressing room drinking and I’d be telling them old dirty stories, you know. And Jon liked that, and he said “Man, we need to make an album outta that.” And I said, no we can’t make no album outta that. I can’t do that out in no public. And we went out and open for them about three times, and they told me, whenever you get ready to do that album, you call me. And I said, yeah. One day after we’d been home four or five days, we’s sitting there under the shady tree in my yard, some old friend of mine drinking beer and stuff, and the phone rang, I had one of them cordless phones and I told my daughter, said “bring it here.” Got out there, “hey R.L., this is Jon, you ready to do that album?” I said yeah, come on down, if it don’t help me, can’t hurt me none. In two days he was down there and rentin the Huntin Club, rent out Harland Springs, and we did the album in four hours.

Did you ever think it would have such a big effect?

No I didn’t. But it outsold every thing I ever put out.

Funny the way that stuff works, huh?


Those guys are good guys. What’s the blue scene like now back home around Holly Springs?

Well, there are some more people playing the blues than there used to be. The bands startin to play is playing the blues. Ain’t many rap bands as there was you know.

Young guys playing the blues?

Young guys trying to play the blues.

What would you say to them?

Well, I’d tell em, you see my son play with the North Mississippi All-Stars, and uh, they got played on two three of my records, two three of Junior’s records, they some all of them on now, they love the blues.

What would you say to your fans, there’s a lot of fans out there who kinda heard that you retired from being on the road a while, and they’ve been waiting to see you come around again. What would send your message to your fans that really wanna see you?

I’d tell ’em I’m glad I be able to get around. Yesterday I had a birthday yesterday, I was 74 years old. And still, the lord blessed me, I’m still able to get around.

Happy Birthday, R.L.

Heck yeah, I appreciate it.

Now there are a lot of young blues artists keeping the blues alive. Who are your favorite young guys?

The Mississippi All-Stars, they uh, are my favorites. And there’s a band, by here and, they started up playing blues, and I can’t remember who they are, but they good.

And what about your grandson Cedric that plays with you guys on the road? How’d you get him into the blues?

Well he’s always wanted to drums, and his father was married to my daughter you know, when they separated Cedric just started playing drums for a little bit.

What’s your favorite food to eat RL?

I like beans and neckbones and stuff like that.

What else?

Just about anything, you name it. I can eat it. Course I have blood pressure, and my wife, and all seven, eight of my kids have it. It bothers them cause they can’t eat no porkmeat, but I never stopped since I had it. And it done run my blood pressure up.

Do you like your wife’s cookin?


Who’s your wife?

Alice. Alice Mae.

Does she run the family back home, she keep everybody in line?

She keeps everyone in the family and I in line. But see we got some more daughters that live there with us now, and you know, she help out. She getting a little old, and I know she be doin’ cooking and everything so my daughters cook biggest the time. She help em you know, show em what to do, but they do it.

Now if one of our listeners, if they were to come over to R.L.Burnside’s house for dinner, what would the night be like at your house?

It’d be a good night man. Cause we’d eat, Alice’d give us whatever we want, bout anything, I get them what they want to eat and then drink some beers and count on there being a party there.

That’s what I like to hear RL.

Yeah, its uh. Lady, she had three kids you know and one of them stuttered when they talked, one mornin he asks his mother “mmmmmama, can you tttttttell me what made me ssstttutter when I ttalk, and my bbrothers don’t stutter when they talk ?” She said, “no I can’t son.” Bout two weeks later he asks his father, you know, “dddddaddadd, can you tttell me what made mememe stutter when I ttalk and my bbrother ddon’t, and my sissters and bbrother don’t when they talk?” He said, “No I can’t son.” About two weeks later a mailman was commin down the street puttting mail in the box, mama went out to get the mail, little boy longside her, and he says, “MMMMister mmmailman, can you ttell me what make me sstutter when I talk and my sister and brother don’t when they talk?”. The mailman kept putting the mail in the box till he get through, and he he look down at the little boy, “sssshhhutt up, you’d get sssomebody killed.”

Oh that’s a good one!


Got any other ones?

Well… when you go the hospital to have a baby… now you know, they got a machine they can put on the husband so he can feel some of the pain, you know. The daddy feel some of the pain and the mama feels part of it. And this guy, friend of mine, went to he hospital and the doctor asked him did you wanna put the machine on? He said yeah, I’d like to feel some of the pain. He put the machine on him and turn it up to about 30. You feel anything… No I don’t. He turn up to about 60. You feel anything… no I don’t yet. He turned it up to about 90, you feel anything… No… By that time the baby’s born they cleaned the lady up and they got in the car and went on to the house. She’s openin up the car she had got out and started up on the porch and saw the mailman laying there dead. He was, he felt all the pain, he was the baby’s daddy…(laughs).

Oh, that is a good one. Aright RL, can you describe the most run down place that you ever played?

Well, d’ ahh, I played… at a lotta places…used to be lot of ’em like that, in Mississippi, you know. I played down at, a couple of ’em out from Kobo and Senotobia. Oh man it was just raggedy inside, but the people would be packed in there and like I said, they’d be dancin and carry’n on and break a plank in the floor would be so many in there, you know…break a plank and there’d be a hole in the floor, but that was fun.

Yeah, that had to be fun. A lot of energy in those rooms. Are you planning on staying on the road for a while, now that you’re feeling better?

Yeah, if I keep on feeling good. I’m planning on staying out here for another four or five more years. If I live…if the lord spares me.

What would you tell all the young blues players that look up to guys like you and John Lee, and BB?

Tell ’em to look up to represent the blues. we’re the boss dogs of the boneyard in the blues. Young people just now…it took ’em a long time but they’re just now learning it you know. All of music started from the blues. That’s the roots of all the music. Keep the blues goin!

How did you get the nickname the “reverend”?

Well I just, drinkin and named myself that. A fella was talking to me and he’s a preacher you know, but he drank and I said “you’re a reverend aintcha? Well I’m “the reverend of the blues” and they started calling me that.

What about your other nickname “rural”?

Yeah, they’ve called me rural, rick and all that stuff, but ah my real name, my given name was Robert Lee and I never liked it you know, because I got rural on my Medicaid card and my Social security.

Are you named after the general Robert Lee?

I think I was.

What’s the name of the new CD?

“Wish I was in Heaven Sittin’ Down”

What do you think of it?

I think it’s good. I like it.

What would you say to all your fans and the people around the world? Give ’em a message from R. L. Burnside.

Stay with the blues. This is R. L. Burnside, stay with the blues. Keep the blues going, don’t let the blues go away, because that’s the roots of all music. That’s what started the music so you can’t let the blues die. Keep them goin.

Thank you, sir.

Alright, goodbye and I thank you Elwood for having me on the show. I’m really proud of that.

The Bluesmobile


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