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Interview with...
R.L. Burnside & Kenny Brown
@ The Minnesota Zoo, August 1, 1998

R.L. Burnside
Minnesota Zoo, 8/1/98
Photo © 1998 by Tom Asp
All rights reserved
I spoke to R.L. Burnside and Kenny Brown (R.L.’s guitar player, manager, friend and chauffeur) prior to their recent Minnesota Zoo Amphitheater show. Talking to Kenny and R.L. is always a fun experience. Both Kenny and R.L. would answer my questions, sometimes in unison, sometimes Kenny would give me an answer and R.L. would be adding comments in the background or echoing what Kenny was saying. R.L. also has a quick wit and is always ready with a humorous comment.

Ray: Your most recent CD is Mr. Wizard isn't it?

Kenny: They got some dance mix stuff that just came out, I haven't heard the whole thing.

Ray: Who put that out?

Kenny: Fat Possum I guess.

Ray: Were you with other people on that material?

Kenny & R.L.: Us, but then they took it and they doctored it up -- like cut R.L.'s voice in different places. It's almost like rap.

R.L.: With some howlin' going on, (he demonstrates with some "yeah, yeah" sounds and laughs).

Kenny: And they added a bass and some drum machines.

Ray: How is the last album doing?

Kenny: Oh, it's doing pretty good.

Ray: Same with "A Ass Pocket of Whiskey" (the album before "Mr. Wizard")?

Kenny: Yeah, "Ass Pocket," we just ain't getting no money off it because Matador ain't payin' Fat Possum. You know they say ‘ah yeah we sold 500 records.’

R.L.: They done sold 5000.

Kenny: They sold that many in one city. I don't know why it is, because Matador is owned by a big company. I guess they owe a bunch of people a lot of money and they just keep it in the bank and draw interest as long as they can.

Ray: Your birthday is November 23, 1926? So you are what, 71 now?

R.L.: Yeah that’s right, 71 now.

Ray: You’re a young guy yet.

Kenny: Wearing the young guys out.

R.L.: I'll be 72, ain’t counting the years I crawled. Crawled about 20 years and went barefoot for 4 or 5 years. (laughs)

Ray: How did you first pick up the guitar:

R.L.: We were raised up pretty close to Fred McDowell and I was around him and Rainy Burnet and Son Hibbler.

Kenny: He's still living isn't he (referring to Hibbler)?

R.L.: Yeah he play gospel now. When I was coming up he was married to my aunty. He was playing the music and all that and I was listening to them and I finally got that I wanted to do it. I watched Fred (McDowell) and I wanted to do that, you know, after I got to where I could play some. I went up to Chicago. Muddy Waters was married to my first cousin and I stayed about 3 years and I was over to his house about every other night. I'd watch him play, you know. I was working during the day at the foundry and every night I’d go over to Muddy's, we only lived a couple of blocks apart.

Ray: When was that?

R.L. Burnside
Minnesota Zoo, 8/1/98
Photo © 1998 by Tom Asp
All rights reserved
R.L.: The late 40's. My father lived about 2 blocks from him. Friday night he played up at Zanzibar, it didn’t cost nothin’ to get in, you just had to pay something if you wanted to get a seat in there. (laughs) But man on Maxwell Street, on Sunday, there used to be a LOT of blues players out there.

Ray: Who were some of the people you'd see down there on Maxwell Street?

R.L.: Chuck Berry, oh a lot of guys. Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter was with Muddy at that time.

Ray: Why did you end up going back to Mississippi then?

R.L.: Well I went back down there and I got married and I haven’t been back since.

Ray: You were still playing with Fred McDowell then?

R.L.: Yeah, when I went back I was still playing around every weekend. He'd be playing at a place and we'd go out to one of them places, I'd sit in with him, then on Sunday we'd go down to his house in Como. Me and Rainy and all of us would go down there and play there on his porch and drink whiskey and stuff you know. Fred was a good guy.

Kenny: I only met him one time when I was just a kid.

R.L.: Yeah he was real nice.

Ray: How about Junior Kimbrough, when did you hook up with him?

R.L.: Oh about 19 years ago we become friends. I didn't know (anything about him), I had never heard about him. A friend asked me (to go see Junior play). We went up to his trailer, I had never saw him before.

Kenny: At that trailer house, yeah, Johnny used to take me over there. That was near Watson, Mississippi, not far from where R.L. lives now. A lady from Memphis had this house trailer there and would sell beer and sandwiches and stuff, sometimes bar-b-q outside. I used to go down there with Johnny Woods. Othar Turner and a lot of people would go over there and play, usually outside under the trees, that was the first time R.L. and Jr. met.

R.L.: Yeah, he was playing there, that's the first time I had noticed (him). That's been about 18, 19 years ago. And from then on, when he told me who he was, he wanted me to play a number just to see if I could play you know, I reckon. (So I did) and from then on whenever he'd be playing, I was living in Tate County then, whenever he be playing on Saturday night he come down and let me know and wanted me to go up and help him out you know. (Laughs)

Ray: He had his juke joint then?

R.L.: No he just played at different places then. Then he started a juke joint over there on the side of number 4 highway. That curve there.

Kenny: That's when I met him, Johnny took me down there he had a house party.

R.L.: Yeah house party then.

Ray: Where was that?

Kenny & R.L.: Just out side of Holly Springs.

Kenny: Junior, man you'd pull into the driveway, the yard, the yard be full of cars.

R.L.: Yeah man. (laughs)

Kenny: You get up in the house, you couldn't move because there be so many damn people in there. Junior, he started practicing with his band on Sundays and it got to where so many people be coming (by) he started selling beer and a little whiskey -- home brew. Then later on he rented him a place.

R.L.: Yeah, that log house.

Ray: So you were working a regular job this whole time raising your family, when did you start playing music full time?

R.L.: About 15 years ago now I've been out doing music for a living, but up till then I drove a cotton picker combine and everything trying to make a living you know. I wasn't touring but maybe once a year or maybe twice. Now I'm busy.

Ray: How many of your kids are still playing?

R.L.: All of them still playing some. Duane did some recording but the rest of them hadn't. They work a regular job and just play part time.

Ray: Kenny, how did you and R.L. hook up?

Kenny: About '71 or something like that, a friend of mine put on a concert and had this rock band playing down in Hernando, they had R.L. opening up. The guy that put on the show lived close to R.L. and knew R.L. was playing. There was a guy playing with him, he didn't play harmonica but he made the sound of (a) harmonica with his hands (R.L. laughs). But I heard R.L. playing guitar and I went up and talked to him and said man I play some guitar and sure like what you're doing. I play a little slide too and I'd like to hook up with you. He told me where he lived and said come on down to the house. So I started going there two or three nights a week. I'd get off construction work and he'd get off the tractor and we'd sit up in there and play till midnight.

R.L.: Till 2 o'clock (more laughter).

Kenny: Yeah, then I'd go home and he’d go to bed and (get up and) go to work and shit then after awhile he took me out to the juke joints on the weekends. I was about 17 or 18 then. (Kenny was born in 1953).

Ray: What attracted you to R.L.'s music when you first heard him?

Kenny: It was the real Mississippi shit and he was playing slide, which I was already into, and the rhythms.

Ray: How would you describe his music to someone?

Kenny: North Mississippi Hill Country Juke Music.

Ray: What did he teach you then?

Kenny: Oh, yeah he started to show me all his songs and a lot of slide stuff that I didn't know. I knew a little bit of slide but I didn't know much, and he started showing me.

R.L.: We were at this place one night playing. I had this gig. I was gambling then you know. I told him you play some now while I go in and shoot some craps. He said oh man, you know they ain’t going to take that?

Kenny: First time he EVER took me to a juke joint.

R.L.: He's the only white man in the house (laughs).

Kenny: I'm the only white guy in there (laughs).

Ray: They were expecting R.L. to play and you took the gig?

R.L.: We played together for a little while then I said I'm going to go gamble some, you play.

Kenny: We played for a little while and then R.L. said I'm going to go in there and gamble Brown you keep playing. I said damn Rule (what R.L. is called by his friends) (laughs), and I'm the only white person in there and I went to playing and like first I was scared to death. I went to playing and the guys went to hollerin', yeah, white folks play that thing. And they went to dancin' and shit, so I kept playin'.

R.L.: About 30 minutes later he was really hanging in there like a dirty shirt.

Kenny: R.L. come on back out there after a while. I tell him, now you were just checking me out to see if I was going to make it or not weren’t you? (more laughter)

R.L.: But I'd made some money that night out back. (laughs)

Kenny: Yeah, but then me an him played together off and on for years, but never was much you know. R.L. would go to Europe and tour as a solo act, so I wouldn’t go with him then.

R.L.: I went solo.

Kenny: But then we played together one time and some of the guys from Fat Possum (were there). I was playing with Mojo Buford and I told R.L. to come down (and play) we was playing in Clarksdale. I called (Mojo) yesterday but he's down in Springfield playing with Cotton. But anyway at the end of the show me and R.L. got up there and just the two of us played and some of the Fat Possum guys heard it and they liked it. Then when they got ready to record "Too Bad Jim" they asked me, said Ken we’re going to do another R.L. record and we want you to play on it. And I said why? R.L. is best by himself, you all don't need me. They said yeah but we want it a little different (R.L. laughs) you know kind of rocking a little more. We like what you do with him. I said all right I'd be glad to do it. So then after that come out we started traveling together.

Ray: When was that?

Kenny: That was about '94, early '94 we went to Canada for the first time. Cedric wasn't but about 15 and he went with us and then after that started we just been getting better and better.

Ray: Can you tell me some more about your time with Mojo Buford? How you first met?

Kenny: I met Mo on Beale St. in Memphis, he was playing at Handy Hall with some guys I knew, when I came up out back Mojo and Melvin were setting in the car and I sat down and talked to them for a while and asked about setting in. They said okay, Mo didn't know me at all, so when I got out of the car to go get my stuff he hollered at me & said "Hey, we play blues" and I said "I gotcha." After I hit a few notes he just looked at me with a big grin and said "I hear ya." We've been friends ever since.

Ray: How did that Jon Spencer thing come about?

Kenny: When I was doing the booking for R.L. they called me one time and wanted us to come to NY and open a show for them. I'd never heard of them. They said what would you all have to have? And I said well we'd have to have a thousand dollars, three round trip plane tickets and hotel rooms. The manager said well, ah, ah, I'll get back with you, let me talk to Jon. He called me back later and he said well they just can't afford that now but they sure do want you to play with them sometime. I said all right, whatever, you know. So then I was down at the record company one day and Matthew said, Kenny here's this CD that you all going to go out and tour with these guys. (R.L. laughs) I said who is it? He said Jon Spencer. I said yeah they called me one time a year or so ago. I took the CD home I put it in and I listened about 30 seconds to one song and I turned it off, didn't listen no more. I told Matty I said man you must be crazy, you know we going out with a punk rock band? (Because) when I listened to (that) CD I knew he was crazy (R.L. laughs again). But then we went out and toured with them for awhile and they'd be making real big money and wouldn’t pay us much at all. The record company would pay us. But we went and did it and then we did that record with them and it turned a lot of people on to us, you know a lot of younger people.

Ray: You were exposed to a different type of audience that really liked your music.

Kenny: Yeah, like now when we play we get a lot of young people coming to our shows. More than anything else probably, so it did help a lot.

[After R.L. left to get ready for the show I asked Kenny about Junior Kimbrough’s recent death and how it affected R.L. and him]

Kenny: I know it had to be tuff on R.L., they were real good friends, it was tuff on all of us who were close to him. Even though he had been sick and most people kind of expected it. I was glad I went to see him a few times right before he died. He was in real good spirits even while he was in critical care. Still wanted a cigarette, which I gave him. I knew he didn't need it but I couldn't tell him no.

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Copyright © 1998 by Ray M. Stiles
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