It would be almost be too neat a narrative if the music didn’t demand it: here at the dawning of a new century, we have three artists collapsing the sound of the past one – or even the past millennium – into a diverse mix of old and new sounds. At the same time that the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou was introducing a new generation to American music’s roots in homemade bluegrass, they showed the new directions it could go in. Johnny Cash was continuing his fruitful collaboration on the American Recordings series with superstar producer Rick Rubin, who defined the sound of the century’s end as much as Cash had its middle: with Slayer’s Reign in Blood and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Rubin had guided the sound of albums that fans would consider the greatest in two different genres, and plenty of others that would make solid contenders. In Red Dirt Girl, Emmylou Harris would combine her tradition-steeped country-folk style with a heady stew of drum machines, answering-machine messages, and haunting post-production effects.
And then there’s R.L. Burnside. If anyone could claim to be an authentic bluesman, it was him: a student of his childhood neighbor Mississippi Fred McDowell, he had been playing without much success since the forties. Though he toured throughout his life, he followed the standard advice to “keep your day job,” as a factory worker in Chicago and a farmhand in Mississippi, and it was only in his retirement years that he was discovered for the documentary The Deep Blues. From there, almost seventy years old, he finally achieved stardom, touring with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (who’ll most likely be familiar to most of you from the Baby Driver soundtrack: say it with me now – “Bell bottoms! Bell bottoms!”). Despite their name, the Blues Explosion combined old-school rockabilly vocals with newer styles of post-punk rock and thumping, hip-hop-influenced beats, a style you can see on their collaboration with Burnside on A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. Burnside would continue updating his style for Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down. As one of the last living representatives of the blues godfathers, he brings that raw, primal sound to the record. But like all good fathers, he has room in his heart for all his children, and the sound of rock and rap is well-represented her as well. At the dawning of a new century, Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down collapses the sound of the last one to the head of a pin, and it explodes with a very Big Bang indeed.
Not everyone appreciated what he was going for – Allmusic dismisses his fusion as an attempt “to make [the album] relevant to hip-hop by adding sampling and scratching” and adds “it sounds forced and unnatural.” Wikipedia offers an even more representative snapshot of Burnside’s polarizing effect with its two blurbs for Ass Pocket: a review from Billboard saying “it sounds like no other blues album ever released” and one from Living Blues calling it “perhaps the worst blues album ever made.”
Whatever Allmusic may say, Burnside makes blues and hip hop sound like the most natural mix in the world, and the opening track makes his case. The album begins with raw, traditional blues chords before adding on more and more layers of reverb, new technology paradoxically making it sound even older, and finally a hip-hop beat. The song itself is Burnside’s rewrite of the classic “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” featured in O Brother. The weight of Burnside’s age is felt in his voice, its frayed edges showing the effect of his long life and career. His history echoes through the song in a more literal way as well, as fragments of the history we’ll hear in full at the album’s end weave in and out between the lyrics.
Cash’s voice was aging as well by Solitary Man. At times, it can be a deficit: U2’s “One” and Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” have to be drastically rewritten to bring them within his range, not that many singers could match Bono’s wailing even in their prime. It’s ironic that his voice sounds so much weaker than it did on his next album, The Man Comes Around, recorded when his health had deteriorated so far that singing was physically painful; maybe Rubin was able to use his experience recording this album to play to Cash’s strengths on the follow-up. But, like Burnside, Cash was able to use his age as an asset as well. Standards like “Lucky Old Sun” and “Wayfaring Stranger” take on a new power with the voice of someone so clearly about to cross over: even songs like “I’m Leaving Now” that are nominally about something else entirely take on a different meaning with the weight of Cash’s age (especially in light of Rubin’s decision to juxtapose “Leaving” and “Stranger.”
Emmylou Harris was, at fifty-four, practically a baby in comparison to the others. But she makes her age felt as well. Even if she did (and does) still have many more years on this planet, she was at an age where the deaths of loved ones was becoming more and more a fact of life. She makes this loss hauntingly real in her memorial to her father in “Michelangelo” and “Bang the Drum Slowly,” with references to World War II grounding them in the history of the disappearing generation that came before her. And after covering other artist’s songs on her previous album, Wrecking Ball, Harris brings her own skills as a writer to bear with a wisdom that can only come from age, most memorably on album-opener, “The Pearl”:
We drink our fill and still we thirst for more,
Asking if there’s no heaven, what is this hunger for?
Back to Burnside. “Got Messed Up” features a literal but no less effective application of the album/s “old sounds from new tech” method, combining the beat with the sounds of a dusty old record. The track also features a harmonica, a classic blues instrument if there ever was one, layered in lo-fi post-production effects to accent its age: you can almost hear the rust.
Rubin’s approach is similar: while Solitary Man doesn’t feature any of the up-to-date effects of Red Dirt Girl or Sitting Down, you can still all the ways he uses the latest studio technology to make the album sound more classic than the classics. You can hear every wheeze and creak from the piano, every cobweb in the organ pipes. The most obvious way he fuses the new breed with Cash’s elder statesman voice, of course, is the song choice. Even more than the others, this album serves as a compact history course of American music, going from old-country folk of “Mary of the Wild Moor” through the blues of “Lucky Old Sun” through the turn-of-the-century show tune “Nobody,” and from there to seventies singer-songwriters (David Allan Coe’s “Would You Lay With Me”), post-punk anthems (“One”), and most shockingly, but somehow fittingly, the iconoclasm of Nick Cave with a harrowing cover of “The Mercy Seat.” Seemingly played by the ghosts of an abandoned old church, it’s almost unbearably intense, with all the fire-and-brimstone power of tracks from Cash’s follow-up like “I Hung My Head” and “Hurt.”
If Harris isn’t quite as in your face, Red Dirt Girl has an emotional resonance of its own; it has, in fact, some of the saddest songs ever written. And resonance is the right word, as producer Malcolm Burn (protege of The Joshua Tree‘s Daniel Lanois) layers her voice on top of itself, making “The Pearl” sound like a duet with her own ghost and “Michelangelo” like it was recorded in the heart of one of the cavernous European cathedrals it describes. There’s many kinds of sorrow on here: the loss of her elegies to her father, the existential anguish of “The Pearl,” and the compassionate tribute to a wasted life on the title track. Even this one small piece of the album is a towering achievement: a four-minute novel, an entire life encompassed in a few verses.
Harris’ voice and words resonate, and so does the music around her. Just like its contemporaries, the new techniques makes the album feel oder, witnessed best in the reverberations of the drums that open the album and of Buddy Miller’s otherworldly bassline. Or just listen to the instrumental of “I Don’t Wanna Talk About It Now,” which uses studio trickery so advanced it creates a new instrument, unidentifiable as either bass or percussion.
Fortunately, Burnside keeps it a little lighter, and few songs can lighten your spirits like Sitting Down’s standout track, “Miss Maybelle.” For a while, this was in contention for my favorite song of all time, and if it isn’t that, it’s still, as the kids say, my JAM. It’s a pure blast of get-up-and-dance joy, with Burnside’s improbably spry voice sailing over a traditional blues-rock bassline and clattering drumsticks that sit comfortably along record scratches that serve not just as decoration but an instrument in themselves. The song functions as a kind of fountain of youth, as Burnside’s worn-out and ragged voice regains a clear, youthful smoothness in the long “whoaoaoa” that forms the backbone of the chorus. And we can’t overlook the producers’ accomplishments here either: mixing prerecorded elements in a studio, they managed to capture the sound and spirit of a live hoedown, if it took place somewhere between a country shack and a hip hop club.
The next track takes a breather from new-school experimentation to prove Burnside can play in the old style as well as anyone. The producers capture Burnside’s guitar-playing in perfect clarity, down to the squeal of the strings under his fingers. Even the imperfections of his technique (you can hear the guitar slip out from under him a few times) only strengthen the raw realness of his performance.
And it’s good we had a little break into the old style, because the album only gets more audacious from there. “Too Many Ups” and “Nothing Man” are less traditional songs than rants and ranconteuring set to music, like Blur’s contemporary “Parklife.” If the title track was pure uncut blues, these songs are a more catholic mix, with rock instrumentals over a hip hop beat under Burnside’s breeze-shooting vocal improvisations, with even a touch of funk working its way in. These songs are fun, but “Bad Luck City” shows Burnside applying a similar approach with haunting effect. He’s going far afield from three-cord blues into the kind of soundscapes artists like David Holmes and DJ Shadow had spent the last decade perfecting, lounge keyboards and record scratches and wailing guitars combining with his own voice to create their own sonic universe. Papa Burnside sits you down by the hearth to school you in the trials of love and urban living, his bluesman moan haunting the chorus.
“Chain of Fools” sees Burnside covering one of the cornerstones of popular music, a dusty old classic by an artist who’s still somehow one of his descendants. This is one track where the hip hop influence really pays off – how many other cover songs use the original audio, let alone so well? It’s not just a gimmick, either — it’s a nod to the sense legacy of the record’s steeped in. And if the approach is unique, it’s not the only album we’re looking at to do something similar: Red Dirt Girl features backing vocals from Patty Griffin on Harris’ cover of her song “One Big Love,” and Johnny Cash teams up with Tom Petty and Will Oldham to interpret their songs. “Chain of Fools” brings in other hip hop elements to bolster its body-moving power, most memorably near the end where the track seems to skip, repeating Burnside’s last syllable “chain-chain-chain,” less of it coming back each time until it turns from a human voice into a percussion instrument as an age-fuzzed vocal sample comes in with the refrain “I’m just a link in your chain.” And even with all that, the biggest thrill is still some good old-fashioned drum-pounding. You can’t beat the classics.
The album ends where it began, with R.L. reflecting over his past life in Chicago, the fragments we heard in “Hard Time Killing Floor” gaining context within a bigger picture. The soundscape of “Bad Luck City” is muted here, providing a cinematic backdrop to Burnside’s recollections, a strumming bass and scratching records echoing across the track like sounds from the bottom of a deep well. The horrors of his past belie the matter-of-factness of his voice. Perhaps the best indicator of Burnside’s success in fusing old and new comes from my own experience with the record: since I discovered it through Tom Moon’s 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, I’ve played it for my dad and granddad, and it’s gotten an equally enthusiastic response from all three generations. And if you want to know what my granddad’s like, just listen to Burnside’s storytelling voice on tracks like this. The musical elements are more than just adornment, though: after Burnside says how three of his family “all got killed in a year’s time,” his voice disappears, leaving only an eerie drone. After a bit, that drops out, the silence giving his next line a powerful impact: “Yeah, I’m glad I made it out, man.” And his moans from the first track echo ghostlike over the story of his father’s death, along with a subtle instrumental effect like rolling thunder.
If you don’t already know about his long and rocky road to fame, “R.L.’s Story” shows the weight of history behind the album. And even without his personal history, Burnside’s record, and Cash’s, and Harris’, all resound with the weight of a century just as it was dying. And as a new one began, these three elder statesmen returned to show the youngsters how it’s done. After all, they’re all pieces of history, uniting a long tradition with new innovations. Like the song says, they’re just a link in the chain.