The Late Blues Invasion

Fat Possum rescues a handful of bluesmen from obscurity.

Imagine if, after the Beatles first hit it big in the States, the British Invasion hadn’t followed them. In this bizarro world, the Rolling Stones are still popular back home—they’ve been playing scummy dives along the Mersey for 40 years—but they’ve never had a single hit in the U.S. The Who wrote a rock opera, but you’ve never heard it. A few years back, hoping to make some real money, they all signed to the same unknown record label, run by a college kid with P.T. Barnum’s business sense and some student loans. And this week, finally, they’re all playing a show in Portland.

Now you’ve got an idea of the world of Fat Possum Records, and the significance of the label’s Juke Joint Caravan coming to the Aladdin Theater on Sunday. For over a decade, the Oxford, Miss., label has earned its reputation scouring juke joints around the northern Delta to make records of a sound nobody outside the bars knew existed—new country blues. It was like finding an animal thought long extinct, or one that had evolved secretly from its ancestors; it had John Lee Hooker’s guts, Ma Rainey’s ovaries, Robert Johnson’s teeth. But two things set it apart from its better-known Delta cousins. This brand of blues had grown dark and trancelike, fermenting on sweaty honky-tonk dance floors instead of behind studio walls.

That was in the mid-’90s. The unpolished recordings also shared Muddy Waters’ charm with young white kids; then-indie heroes the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion met and recorded an album—in a single day—with R.L. Burnside, the label’s near-70 star. A Ass Pocket of Whiskey only hinted at the energy of Burnside’s other albums, but lured scores of wide-eyed underground kids into record stores to hunt down any CD with the Fat Possum stamp.

Other artists rose from obscurity when the label paired up with punk outlet Epitaph Records in 1996. There was the late Junior Kimbrough, a player so brilliant you don’t know whether you’re crying because of the music or because you were inches away from drinking and dancing to his genius in the flesh and never knew it. T-Model Ford, dirtiest of them all, espoused lyrical gems like, “I been shot/ I been cut/ Catch you fuckin’ up/ Put my foot in your ass.” Kenny Brown, Burnside’s longtime guitarist, grew up learning guitar from his neighbor and Delta Blues master, Joe Callicott. Most had worked their lives on the farm. And some, like Ford, had been convicted of murder somewhere along the line.

The Epitaph partnership dissolved late last year, due to slumping blues sales throughout the industry. Hoping to freshen up, Fat Possum has begun pushing indie acts—Bob Log III, Grandpaboy (a.k.a. Paul Westerberg)—and signed another agreement with Rykodisc. Whether Fat Possum’s gospel will be spread by its traveling blues shows, time and the tour will tell. Sooner rather than later, hopefully; time is something a lot of these guys don’t have much of left.

Fat Possum’s Unearthed Recordings

Plenty of documentarians—the Library of Congress, Folkways Records—recorded backwoods blues artists in the ’60s. So wasn’t somebody with a tape recorder paying attention before Fat Possum’s artists had to walk on stage with a cane?

Fortunately, yes. Fat Possum recently released five remasters of reel-to-reel tapes made by George Mitchell, a historian who grew up around the area.

Mississippi Fred McDowell & Johnny Woods, Mama Says I’m Crazy (1967)

McDowell recorded better performances than these, but for fans of the man—or guitar and harmonica duets—the high-energy, drunkenly howled numbers are spotless.

Furry Lewis, Good Morning Judge (1962)

The Memphis sound’s so rich, here lines like “What evil have I done?/ Blood in my body done got too low to run,” come from the speakers like wool from a spindle.

Jimmy Lee Williams, Hoot Your Belly (1977, 1982)

Fittingly titled. Williams growls throatily more than he sings. If “What Make Grandpa Love My Grandma So?” doesn’t make you smile, you’re already lost.

Joe Callicott, Ain’t a Gonna Lie to You (1967)

All acoustic, all country, with ballads that move slow and smooth as honey. Callicott taught Kenny Brown to play, but no one has his voice.

R.L. Burnside, First Recordings (1968)

Belongs beside any classic floor-stomp Hooker album. When he moans—part venom, part shame—”Some black man/ Always hangin’ round,” and you realize he’s dissing someone for having his same skin color, you’ll realize what the blues are.

Fat Possum Juke Joint Caravan, featuring T-Model Ford, Kenny Brown & Cedric Burnside and Paul “Wine” Jones plays the Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., 233-1994. 8 pm Sunday, May 23. $13.50 advance, $15 day of show. All ages.

Originally published in Willamette Week