Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down

R.L. Burnside

album cover

Better Be Sitting Down for This One. . .

Until he was in his sixties, R. L. Burnside (1926–2005) made his living as a farm laborer in the Mississippi hill country. The gravel-voiced singer had been taught guitar by his neighbor, the legendary Mississippi Fred McDowell, and played juke joints from time to time—he was first recorded in 1967, by musicologist George Mitchell. In 1992, Burnside and another nearby guitarist Junior Kimbrough (see p. 423), were featured in the film Deep Blues, triggering record deals, tours, and eventually a wide revival of interest in what had been a fast-vanishing rural blues style.

After several relatively traditional efforts, Burnside shocked the blues world in 1996 by collaborating with the high-energy Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on A Ass Pocket Full of Whiskey, which featured hip-hop scratching, odd "found" sounds, and other urban accoutrements. That record hasn't aged well; its nonidiomatic touches seem gratuitous now. The subsequent Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down gently integrates those devices into a throaty impressionistic wail that is still, at bottom, the blues.

Throughout this set, Burnside brings an echo-chamber spookiness to the most ordinary blues clichés—when, on "Nothing Man," he talks about neglect, his words "I wish my mother would have loved me" are chillingly wooden. The album opens in a downcast mood, with the syrup-slow "Hard Time Killing Floor," and though the pace quickens (for the chugging "Miss Maybelle" and a stuttering cover of "Chain of Fools"), Burnside is most effective when he lingers over his thoughts, muttering like an old man who's lost in the sonic scrapheap around him. If your blues vocabulary stops at the highly polished guitar pronouncements and effusive vocals of latter-day B.B. King, seek out Burnside, whose coarseness recalls a time before the blues was show business.

Genre: Blues
Released: 2000, Fat Possum
Key Tracks: "Chain of Fools," "Hard Time Killing Floor," "Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down"
Catalog Choice: Too Bad Jim
Next Stop: Junior Kimbrough: All Night Long
After That: The Black Keys: Thickfreakness
Book Page: 133

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