The Fat Possum Juke Joint Caravan
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The Fat Possum Juke Joint Caravan

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"The New Yorker"

R.L Burnside sits in a folding chair backstage at the village underground, in New York, mopping his brow with a towel and sipping from a half pint of Jack Daniel's. With his hair swept in two graying wings from his massive forehead, he resembles an impishly smiling version of the famous portrait of Fredrick Douglass. At seventy-five, Burnside exudes a jaded, bullish vitality. Wearing red suspenders over a faded flannel shirt, hunter-green pants, and muddy yellow work bots, he looks as though he's just come from a day in the fields, driving a tractor- which is the way he has supported himself for most of his life.

Well-wishers are surging backstage; one by one they approach and then crouch down to pay their respects. Introductions are conducted by a disheveled young white man, rail-thin in a T-shirt and jeans. This is Matthew Johnson, the head of Fat Possum records. At almost any hour of the day, Johnson gives the impression of just having got out of the bed after a sleepless night. Without benefit of gel or deliberate grooming, his short sandy hair achieves that pointing-in-seventeen-directions-at-once look that's become so fashionable in recent years. Despite the triumphal nature of the occasion- a sold out, celebrity-ridden New York gig by a musician whom he has almost single-handedly rescued from poverty and obscurity- Matthew Johnson has the worried, resigned expression of a man who knows that things can only get worse-and will.

"R.L., this is Uma Thurman,'' Johnson says in a weary drawl. "Matthew tells me y'all are in the movies," Burnside says politely, and promises to look out for her pictures once they get home to Mississippi. Debra Winger says hello. As Richard Gere approaches, Matthew Johnson reminds Burnside that he has met the actor before, when he played at Gere's recent birthday party in Manhattan. "Oh sure," Burnside says. "I remember him. He had all them monks at his party." The blues-man had never heard of Richard Gere; his concern was whether the gig paid in cash. He has worried about endangering his monthly welfare check. "That was one of the good gigs," Johnson remarks. "R.L. showed up for that one."

For the past decade, Johnson, who is thirty-two, has mad a mission of finding and recording the last of the Mississippi bluesmen- the inheritors of the legacy of Charley Patton and Robert Johnson- making perhaps the last in a long line of white blues entrepreneurs and preservationists from Alan Lomax to Leonard Chess, although he speaks disdainfully of "blues geeks" and is a controversial figure in the blues community. (A recent Fat Possum compilation was called, provocatively, "Not the same old Blues Crap".) Crisscrossing Mississippi, the poorest, most radically divided state in the Union, Johnson knocks on the doors of trailers and shotgun shacks, chasing down rumors of guitar playing tractor drivers and welders, searching for the living remains of a tradition that stretches back to the beginning of the twentieth-century. ("I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard a kid shout out, "White man at the door," Johnson says.) His discoveries aren't necessarily the best guitar players or singers in the world. Johnson is looking for something else- something raw and original, a kind of authenticity that some might call soul. "All I care is that they have a signature," he says. "I can find a guitar wizard in every mall guitar shop in America."

Fat Possum now has a stable of septuagenarian blues men, and a following that includes Bono, Beck, and Iggy Pop (who describes Fat Possum as "the most uncorrupted label in America"). Mississippi blues- as opposed to Chicago blues- is supposed to be acoustic and folksy, but the Fat Possum sound is grungy, repetitive, and amplified, more back alley than front porch. In many ways, it seems closer to punk rock than to, say, jazzy virtuoso riffs of B.B. King, or the polite homages of Eric Clapton. Some have called it "dirty blues", although that phrase is almost laughably redundant.

Fat Possum artists seem to share a background of sharecropping, illiteracy, poverty, and alcohol abuse and prison time. Burnside is a convicted killer, as is T-Model Ford, the crudest and most exuberant of the Fat Possum lot. T-Model Ford's drummer, Spam, lost several fingertips to a girlfriend with a box cutter. Seventy-four-year-old Cedell Davis, crippled with polio as a child, was crushed and nearly killed in a barrow stampede set off by a police raid. Paul (Wine) Jones, a part-time welder, is the only Fat Possum artist who's young and it enough to play an entire set standing up, although he is sometimes sober enough to do so. Johnson is suspicious of all blues, but he concedes, "My artists have all had hard lives, and that's reflected in the music."

My whole livelihood is based on a guy who doesn't give a rat's ass about anything," Johnson says of R.L. Burnside. We're in the hill country near Holly Springs, Mississippi- Johnson at the wheel of his Chevy - Jay McInerney


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Bio

T-Model Ford w/ Spam
T-Model's credentials are impeccable; if anything he's over qualified. He was born James Lewis Carter Ford in Forrest, a small community in Scott County, Mississippi. T-Model thinks he's seventy-five but isn't sure. He was plowing a field behind a mule on his family's farm by age eleven, and in his early teens he secured a job at a local sawmill. He excelled and was later recruited by a foreman from a bigger lumber company in the Delta, near Greenville, and eventually got promoted to truck driver. Between that and working in a log camp T-Model was sentenced to ten years on a chain-gang for murder. He lucked out and was released after serving two. He says, grinning, "I could really stomp some ass back then, stomp it good. I was a-sure-enough- dangerous man."
Well, old times here are not forgotten. T-model is constantly arguing playfully with Stella, his girlfriend, about their more violent disagreements. When asked how many times he'd been to jail, T-Model responded, "I don't know. How many?" He seemed to think it might be a trick question. Upon realizing it wasn't, he answered to the best of his ability. "Every Saturday night there for awhile."
As disheartening as this is, it's also a refreshing reminder of how ridiculous the present image of a bluesman is. Nothing could be more twisted that the romanticized and picturesque standard; and old black man devoid of anger and rage happily strumming an acoustic guitar on the back porch of his shack "in that evening sun". Three quarters of a century old, and with a dislocated hip, T-Model Ford is the only musician making his debut who could just as easily be starring in the most competitive branch of the National Wrestling Federation: The Cage Match.
Although Fat Possum makes it it's business to trod some wild paths, the wildest yet has to be the one that T-Models drummer, Spam, lives on. We stopped en route to New York City just as Spam's girlfriend walked out of the door dragging an oxygen tank and holding a cigarette in her other hand-a situation that could have been easily blown out her rib cage if not the entire block. Spam didn't care about that, though. He was worried she might snip off the tips of his fingers with a box cutter again.
Tommy Lee Miles to the authorities, Spam to his friends, he has been T-Model's A-number-one drummer for the past eight years. Sam Carr and Frank Frost, T-Model's old friends, were brought in for one session. But the guest musician's smiles gave way to scowls as T-Model's constant refrain ("T-Model Ford is going to remember you sorry fuckers how it's done") became more and more emphatic. Seconds before "Been a Long Time" was recorded, Frank Frost felt compelled to sate, "I want everyone to know that I'm now playing against my will."
T-Model and Spam are the only men still playing on Greenville's Nelson Street. Most of the audience has scattered due to violence from the crack trade, and with the exception of T-Model, the street that once boasted Booba Barnes and others is dead. On a typical night Spam and T-Model will arrive at the club and unpack T-Model's guitar and amp, and the bass drum and snare he allows Spam to use. When T-Model feels there are enough people, they start banging away in their own post-war Peavey-powered hill stomp. It's nothing unusual for T-Model to play eight hours a night. They keep going until no one's left standing. After his equipment's packed up T-Model will coat himself with Outdoorsman Off and climb into his van to crash.

Kenny Brown
After 3 long years Kenny's much awaited genuine Fat Possum debut Stingray will be released on Feb 11th. Although R.L. Burnside is fond of calling Kenny Brown his adopted son, it is really the sadly under-recorded north Mississippi bluesman Joe Callicott who was the first musician to take Kenny under his wing.
At ten, Brown was playing with Callicott after school everyday, simultaneously absorbing the hypnotic old African sound of OtharTurner's fife and drum band, a fixture at picnics across the road from Brown's Nesbit, Mississippi, home.
By eighteen, Brown had also apprenticed with local harmonica ace Johnny Woods and Mississippi Fred McDowell, soon becoming Burnside's right hand, which he remained for twenty-five years. With his own band Brown has applied the powerful cry-and-moan singing style of the hills and those relentless, droning guitars to his own distinctive Sound, earning him Musician magazine's praise as "simply the best white slide player you might ever hear." Brown lives in Potts Camp, in the middle of the giant Holly Springs National Forest, with his nephew Jocko and a number of horses.

Paul Jones
Paul Jones of Belzoni, Mississippi, a small town with a rich blues heritage in the heart of the delta, is a professional welder. He lives with his wife Bessie Mae in a house he purchased with the sweat of his brow. Before becoming a welder, Jones worked in a Delta cotton gin; before that, like many of his Delta neig