Fat of the Land 

Mississippi blues label may court controversy, but the richness of its music speaks volumes

Mississippi blues label may court controversy, but the richness of its music speaks volumes

Fat Possum’s latest releases, the strikingly original rap/blues compilation New Beats From the Delta and R.L. Burnside’s Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down, have as many layers of meaning as Big Muddy’s banks have layers of silt. These aren’t neatly separated but fluid and shifting, giving us access to slavery-era work hollers and Anglican hymns, to name only two elements underlying the blues. Both discs offer moments of eerie and seemingly endless convergence that begins in the urban experience of present-day America, stretching back through the Great Migration to the long series of displacements that provide the chapters of the Southern experience in black and white. Released last week, New Beats and Wish I Was in Heaven are separate, autonomous achievements that raise a number of complex issues; yet the experience of each recording, as well as its sociohistorical echoes, deepens after having heard the other.

Similarly, the CDs themselves reprise aspects of the harmonic convergence that took place in Oxford, Miss., (Fat Possum’s hometown) on the steamy last weekend of August. T-Model Ford, whose work supplies the base for several songs on New Beats, headlined on Friday night at a local bar called Proud Larry’s, with opening acts Robert Belfour and Paul “Wine” Jones. (All three are members of the touring ensemble known as Fat Possum’s Juke Joint Blues Caravan.) On Sunday evening, Burnside capstoned a daylong concert on the Ole Miss campus. While these events add their own hue and resonance to the new CDs, this isn’t to say that New Beats and Wish I Was in Heaven don’t offer energies all their own. Both of these records—not to mention the recent, critically acclaimed solo releases of Ford, Belfour, and Jones—dazzle and spark because Fat Possum thumbs its nose at blues purists: While Burnside’s release draws on primal gutbucket riffs and wails in solid, if relatively conventional ways, the New Beats disc throws these musical elements in the same bag with techniques more normally associated with hip-hop, electronica, and techno. When these experiments falter—as in The Go-Gittas’ occasional stumbles into gross-out misogynistic genre clichés—the result is an amplified sputter of sound and fury, as another Oxonian might put the matter. But when Fat Possum succeeds, as it does most of the time, the convergence of music and production itself happens in a way that creates immediacy, relevance, soul, tradition, and irreverence you won’t find anywhere else.

Longtime fans know that Fat Possum brought listeners some of the best blues records of the ’90s: Junior Kimbrough’s All Night Long topped Rolling Stone’s list of that decade’s finest blues releases. Kimbrough’s style is funky, down-home, and deliberately lo-fi—much like Burnside on most traditional-sounding cuts of Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down. The same is true of Burnside’s stage performances, as will attest those who witnessed his performance that very hot, very humid Mississippi weekend two months ago. The man Burnside calls his “adopted white son,” guitarist Kenny Brown, rocked on the older bluesman’s right; behind them both, grandson Cedric Burnside went at the drums with studied intensity and freestyle virtuosity.

One bit of stage banter at the Ole Miss concert revealed something of another kind of tension that Fat Possum has been accused of exploiting in its older black musicians. The audience was largely post-adolescent, middle/upper-middle class, and white; the folks in attendance, many of whom had brought blankets and chairs, responded warmly to Burnside’s usual charm. As the end of his set approached, a staged fuss was made over a gift of moonshine supposedly sent by a female admirer earlier in the evening. Burnside drank the alleged moonshine in one gulp, and a thunderous, Oxford-wide, yahooing, masculine roar—as well as many clenched fists, etc.—went up from the crowd. A tiny moment of vague, boozy, and mostly silent disturbance followed. What had we all just witnessed, and/or participated in, on the very ground that was covered only 35 years ago by tanks and smoke and gunfire and white students screaming ugly segregationist epithets?

Any post-colonialist would say that the masculine cheers exemplified the continued projection of whites’ fantasies about what constitutes “primitive” or “dangerous” behavior—even such mild instances as drinking homebrew—onto African Americans. A scholar of our culture’s psychology might find the source of these cheers in the same white male sexual anxiety that fueled both Faulkner’s greatest work and the Ku Klux Klan’s worst atrocities. A Jungian might point to the universal need for Dionysus/Orpheus/Osiris/Christ figures who take an entire culture’s suffering and ecstasy into themselves then self-destruct, only to be resurrected or reincarnated. In this respect, Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix are comparable to bad-boy poets like Dylan Thomas and James Dickey—audiences gradually began booing if Hendrix didn’t set his guitar afire at performances, just as campus literati were disappointed when Thomas refused a last glass of whiskey and called it a night. Likewise, half of the Ole Miss crowd seemed partly enthused, but also partly relieved that Burnside was doing something vaguely outrageous. But onstage moonshine-swilling is pretty tame stuff, and neither it nor some of Fat Possum’s promotional materials quite disguises the rough-old-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold quality that the bluesman has consistently projected onstage, in interviews, and on CD.

Thus some blues critics are infuriated by Fat Possum’s representation of Burnside and Ford, in particular, as belt-swinging, whiskey-addled, lecherous, wife-beating alcoholics on parole from the state’s notorious prison farm, Parchman. A comic strip in a 1999 issue of Details, in which Ford “fondles the proffered breasts and rubs himself against the willing asses of women half a century his junior,” prompted ferocious and lingering revulsion in some quarters. “Cooptation,” “shameless milking of racial stereotypes,” and “encouraging minstrel buffoonery” are phrases that erupted from various blues writers, none of them rigidly PC or traditionalist.

Most blame Matthew Johnson, Fat Possum’s wunderkind commander-in-chief, for the titillating promo. But spending even a brief amount of time with Johnson, his artists, and Oxford locals indicates that Johnson is not only plowing a very hard row, but he’s also earned the right to use any tools he damn well pleases. Johnson started Fat Possum in 1992 with a student loan and, in the past eight years, has been sued, countersued, and sued again by onetime partners such as Phil Walden of Capricorn Records. The legal minutiae behind still lingering grudges and regrets, covered most recently by Blues Access, are brain-numbing in their detail and their ultimate lack of significance to anyone except legal scholars.

Citing the fees most lawyers charge per hour, some defenders of Fat Possum argue that if a little PR pandering is what it takes to keep the label going, what’s wrong with that? After all, Johnson and his company delivered the undeniably gifted Kimbrough and Burnside from deepest obscurity. Would the producers of HBO’s hit series The Sopranos ever have heard of Burnside, much less included one of his songs on their soundtrack CD, if it hadn’t been for Johnson? Furthermore, if it hadn’t been for more successful artists like Kimbrough and Burnside, Johnson couldn’t have afforded to record Belfour, Jones, and Ford, all of whom have released CDs in the past two years to considerable critical acclaim; nor would he have taken a chance on a disc as experimental as New Beats From the Delta. Last, if Fat Possum’s acts are nudged toward “minstrel buffoonery,” the acts themselves have doubtless been tempted more than once to turn that stereotype on its cracker ass by whatever means necessary.

For example, the Friday-night show in Oxford two months ago opened with a remarkable performance by Robert Belfour—remarkable in part because his set began with several numbers sung, with enormous brio, to the pointedly turned backs of three white guys standing right next to the stage. Expanding on Belfour’s gracious note, Paul “Wine” Jones brought a tent-revival feeling to the evening, bringing God and the devil’s music together with great enthusiasm. At one point, he blessed and “sanctified” the audience, and not once during his set did he lose his wonderful, luminous smile. T-Model Ford ended the evening with such flair and energy and good humor that Fat Possum’s tour PR indeed seemed just plain perverse: “Belfour and T-Model don’t like each other, so there may be trouble.” Does this mean that the more authentic the bluesmen, the greater the likelihood that they’ll shoot each other? Or that more white people, especially guys, will come to blues shows if they think they’ll get to see intraracial violence? The latter postulation is given a great deal of credence by the popularity of gangsta rap among whites—as well as by Spike Lee in his new film on Hollywood minstrels, Bamboozled.

On the other hand, in the early years, Johnson clearly wanted to get away from a different but no less manipulative form of cooptation: portraying Belfour, Burnside, Ford, Jones, and the late Junior Kimbrough as sad old men broken down by the hardscrabble struggle for existence. You don’t have to be Bob Dylan to suspect that the adulation directed toward country blues artists at 1960s Newport festivals had a lot more to do with the audience’s preconceived aesthetic and politics than any genuine response to the music. Indeed, these audiences mostly consisted of middle-class white kids whose exposure to rural life, the consequences of American racism, the South, and poverty was arguably so limited that they may be accused of what the great literary critic Randall Jarrell called the habitual, Ur-American “mooing awe for the common man.” That awe was crankily refused by the intractable Skip James, who had developed and refined his playing, composing, and writing for way too many years to hear himself described as “an authentic primitive.”

As always, the proof is in the pudding—or, in the case of Fat Possum’s roster, the plastic. The Juke Joint Caravan tour, which unfortunately won’t be coming to Nashville because of our city’s exorbitant production costs, has Belfour, Jones, and Ford on the road in support of their recent albums, all of which have been very well received. Meanwhile, Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down is inarguably the best work of Burnside’s career, with tracks ranging from the haunting spoken-word autobiography that opens and closes the CD to rocking performance faves like “Miss Maybelle” to the unexpected plangency of the title cut. As the breadth of Burnside’s latest album suggests, Fat Possum obviously isn’t interested in forcing its artists to stay within the lines drawn by previous successes: Indeed, the company’s improvisatory approach to recording doubtless coaxes its bluesmen to improvise right along with the label. Whatever arguments blues critics may have with Fat Possum’s approach to PR, just about everyone agrees that the music, to quote Spin, is “the only blues that matters.”

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