Journalist-turned-producer Robert Palmer tells the tale of how he found himself recording North Mississippi blues artists — persevering through lightning strikes and the idiosyncrasies of the region.
Robert Palmer first appeared on the musical map around 1968 as a reedman with a group out of Memphis called Insect Trust. Named after a William Burroughs concept, Insect Trust made some fairly bizarre, blues-drenched rock albums for Atlantic Records before disappearing from the scene in the early 1970s.
A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, based in New York City, Palmer reemerged as a music journalist with an incredibly broad range of taste, covering everybody from Muddy Waters to the Rolling Stones to Ornette Coleman for publications from Rolling Stone to Penthouse to the Saturday Review. He contributed scores of liner notes and hundreds of reviews and features, ultimately serving several years as the principal pop music critic for the New York Times. He also taught American music at Yale, Bowdoin College, the Smithsonian Institution, Brooklyn College, and Memphis State University.
In 1981 Viking Press published Palmer’s epochal work, Deep Blues, an evocative investigation of the music, artistic personalities, and social economy of the Mississippi Delta.
Brilliant interviews with Muddy Waters, Robert Junior Lockwood, Johnny Shines, Honeyboy Edwards, and other Delta bluesmen help illuminate Palmer’s vivid portraits of blues giants like Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Robert Nighthawk, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and B.B. King.
Nine years later Bob Palmer got a phone call “out of the blue,” as he says, from former Eurythmics frontman Dave Stewart, who had just formed his own film production company and wanted to make a movie based in the “blues reality” he’d encountered in Palmer’s book. Stewart engaged Palmer as his guide and, ultimately, as producer of the soundtrack for a film also titled Deep Blues, directed by Bob Mugge.
In the fall of 1990 Palmer, Mugge, and Stewart’s film and recording crew ventured down the highways, onto the back roads, and into the raucous juke joints and backwoods nightspots of rural Mississippi, filming and recording in context such obscure modern blues players as R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Big jack johnson, Frank Frost, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Roosevelt “Booba” Barnes, Lonnie Pitchford, Jack Owens and Bud Spires.
As a producer, Palmer says: “I was able to zero in on the detail, the texture, the inner voices and other subtleties I hear in this music… We also worked hard on recreating the unique aural ambiance of every juke joint, club, and porch, aiming to put the listener smack-dab in the middle of the action.”
The Deep Blues soundtrack presents us with, in Palmer’s words, “the sound of people going out for a good time and getting into state-of-the-art trouble in some of the funkiest stomp-down juke joints in the state of Mississippi….If the electric guitars aren’t slicing your skull and dicing your brains like chainsaws from hell, TURN IT UP.”
Palmer has followed the Deep Blues project, released by Atlantic Records, with series of three state-of-the-blues-art productions for Fat Possum Records in Oxford, Mississippi, focusing on north Mississippi bluesmen junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside and Helena, Arkansas slide guitarist/vocalist CeDell Davis.
The Junior Kimbrough record, All Night Long, and the Deep Blues soundtrack resulted in Palmer being named Producer of the Year in the just-released Living Blues magazine critics’ poll. The CeDell Davis’ CD, Feel Like Doin’ Something Wrong, has just been issued, and the new R.L. Burnside album is being completed now. All four recordings feature fantastic music and great liner notes by the producer, who has clearly found his medium and is working it for all he’s worth.
“The blues is enjoying an unprecedented resurgence in the areas that originally nurtured it,” Palmer points in the notes to the Deep Blues CD. “The music lives because it fills a need in the lives of individuals and their communities, a fundamental need for solace, and for expression… The blues is their religion, the juke joints their places of worship, and the charged atmosphere they create is the fundamental blues experience..
Early this year Bob Palmer and his companion, Jo Beth Briton, moved from the northern Mississippi countryside outside of Memphis to New Orleans, where they have taken up residence in Treme, just around the corner from my own modest homestead.
My wife and I strolled over one night last month to talk with Palmer and listen to his a searing collection of idiosyncratic hill-country blues that new R.L Burnside production, is one of the hardest, deepest, most moving blues records I’ve experienced in years.
When did you start to get into producing? This is pretty recent?
Yeah, it is. The Deep Blues soundtrack and the Fat Possum things are really my first producing credits, but my background in it goes back a really long way. I started. working in studios back in the mid ’60s when I was growing up.
I grew up in Little Rock, and starting about 1965, when I was supposed to be in school, I was really in Memphis running around. Memphis was about 150 miles away — about two and a half hours — and I used to hitchhike back and forth. I worked in the old American Studios there with Chips Moman — Alex Chilton was a part of that when he was lead singer with the Box Tops.
At the time that I was working there, the studio band was playing all the Wilson Pickett stuff, they did “Mustang Sally,” all those things for Atlantic. Chips did the first Stax records, you know…
And played on them as well.
Yes, he sure did. Anyway, I worked the next year as sort of a go-fer, and then working
on recordings with Chips, and ultimately… Well, that was my original claim in recording. And Bobby Womack was the other go-fer there. Bobby and I used to sit there and watch Chips take the machines apart, you know, and it was real educational.
I also spent a lot of time in studios, mostly interviewing people, and going to a lot of sessions — Rolling Stones sessions, lots of people — just hanging out and working on stories as a journalist. Often I would get way too personal, like asking Willie Mitchell where he put the mics on the drums! He would say, “That’s my secret — I’m not going to tell you that.”
That’s the best drum sound in the world. I always say that the Willie Mitchell band is probably the greatest unsung band in that whole period.
Willie Mitchell was a great musician — sort of like the Dave Bartholomew of Memphis.
I spent a lot of time in Willie’s studio too. It was originally called Royal’s, over on Royal Street — Royal Recording. Willie got the keys to it in the early 70’s and never gave them back.
Anyway, years later, in the mid-80’s, I recorded a few sessions in New York on blues people, mainly just for my own edification, just to get it down. I did some sessions on CeDell Davis when I brought him to New York City to play at Tramps. That was my home away from home when I was in New York — that was the only place in New York I used to play. I played there a lot with various people, and I put together bands there for CeDell and Big Jay McNeely.
Then I fell into the Deep Blues project with Dave Stewart and got to cut the soundtrack. And, at this point, I got a chance to produce the Junior Kimbrough album for Fat Possum Records. Now, Fat Possum is almost… to say it’s a bargain-basement operation is giving it a little credit! It’s more like a sub-basement thing.
Isn’t it run by the people from Living Blues magazine?
Yeah. A couple of guys named Peter Lee and Matthew Johnson started Fat Possum, and Peter was the editor of Living Blues — he resigned to start this label. They did a couple of records — the first R.L. Burnside album and the John “So Blue” Weston record — and they were getting ready to do Junior Kimbrough.
They ended up doing Junior as a result of an offer from a friend of mine who was a musician — he plays keyboards for a band called Widespread Panic, and he’s gotten real popular. His name is John Herman. Anyway, he told the Fat Possum people that he would back the Junior Kimbrough project if they let me produce it, but I didn’t know anything about his involvement until all of this happened. So that’s how we started working together at Fat Possum Records.
Who did their first two records?
They kind of produced those themselves with the musicians and Bruce Watson, who’s the engineer guy they work with. He has a little studio in Oxford, Mississippi, where they make their records. Then Bruce and I recorded the Junior Kimbrough record together, and I mixed it up in New York with this friend of mine named Robbie Morris. Robbie is an engineer I met when I did the Big Jay McNeely sessions in the mid-80s, right? He was somebody that Terry Dunne knew, from Tramps. I had lost touch with him after we did those sessions, but they were real memorable.
For one thing, he was the first engineer I got with who, when I would make strange suggestions to him, he wouldn’t look at me like I was crazy. You know, I would start setting up and he would say, “There’s some leakage between the guitar and the harmonica,” and I’d say, “Well, if you got an extra track, let’s put a mic on it and put the leakage on the tape.” And he’d just smile and say, “Yeah,” instead of trying to cover it up.
People are making blues records now like they’re making anything else, trying to make it real clean, but the leaks get into that kind of distortion thing that makes a lot of this stuff happen.
You know, I always pride myself on going back… even though I have a direct guitar track and the guitar amp miked and all that, sometimes I end up going back and smooshing it all up together in the mix, because sometimes you can hear things separate and sometimes it just works with the sound in the room or not at all. Sometimes if you separate too much, the thing that puts the music together can be taken apart.
So I ran into Robbie in New York right after the Deep Blues soundtrack came out. I was doing an interview with Yoko Ono, and she had gotten somebody through her connections to record it, and it turned out to be Robbie. So, Robbie and I met again at Yoko’s in New York in about 1991, and he said, “Well, when are we going to finish those blues records?” And I said, “Well, you know…”
And then here comes Fat Possum wanting to do a record, and here comes Robbie just appearing magically at just the right time. I had been thinking I’d like to be making records of some of this kind of music for years, but the opportunity finally came together in that way. And Dave Stewart really started the ball to rolling by just calling out of the blue to get me involved in the Deep Blues project with him.
Can we go back a step to the book Deep Blues? That was such a great book. I mean, it was a book that should have always been there, but it wasn’t. You got all the right people, you let them talk, and you really get at the blues reality told by the real blues people in their own words…
Well, a lot of books on blues seem to be written out of people’s record collections. In fact, most of the writing about music comes out of the record collection. I’ve always felt, because of the way I grew up and everything, that live music and the live thing is pretty much the real thing. Records could be a document of that and they could be a strong experience on their own, but they really don’t get down to the heart of what the music is about. Certainly in these areas, like the blues, you really need to go to the scene, where the music is happening, and experience it in that context.
Basically, you know, I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and I played music every weekend from the time I was 14. I was born in 1945, so by around 1960 I was playing in bars. I thought I knew how to play blues, and by the time I was 15 or 16 I decided that white people in Little Rock were just totally poison, so I started playing pretty much with Black bands.
So I thought I was way into it, you know, and then, it must have been around 1965-66, I started hanging out in Memphis and I met these people who were going around re-discovering blues singers — people like Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and then around Memphis, Booker White and Furry Lewis. Fred McDowell was around there, Reverend Robert Wilkins was around there — just an incredible bunch of people.
The main person that. I fell in with was the guy who later was the guitar player in the Insect Trust. His name was Bill Barth, and he and Henry Vestine — the guitar player in Canned Heat — and Nick Perls, who started Yazoo Records …see, those are the guys who re-discovered Skip James. And Barth had learned all this guitar stuff from Skip James that nobody else could play, you know, because it was in weird tunings and everything.
His piano playing was even more extreme — I remember talking to Jimmy Page one time when he came through Memphis with the Yardbirds, and I asked him who his biggest influence was, and he said, “Skip James, on piano.” Skip James was really out there.
I guess my whole background in this music really starts with the Memphis Blues Festivals, because all those people were around, and we started putting on a blues festival in Memphis. At the time there was very little interest in this music anywhere — in fact, it was notable in town for the fact that the people who were doing this thing had long hair, and smoked pot, and put a big picture of Buddha on the stage. [laughs]
These shows were in the Overton Park Shell in Memphis, which is where Elvis made his famous breakthrough and so forth, right in the middle of Memphis, off of Poplar, and we did these shows there every summer between 1966 and 1969. It was basically three or four of us doing everything, so I hung around all these people and I had the wonderful experience — which everybody should have — of trying to play blues. with somebody like Booker White, who would just totally disregard all the formal structures of the blues…
What were you playing then, mostly saxophone?
Yeah, saxophone and clarinet. I played all of it. When I was in Insect Trust, we had a two-person reed section: the other guy played soprano and alto and baritone sax, and I played alto and tenor and clarinet.
But anyway, that’s my whole exposure to that music, being around those people in the ’60s. And, as the band moved to New York City in the summer of 1967, we continued to come back down South and put on the blues festivals. We had a couple guys from north Mississippi come up and stay with us, in New York, and play some gigs with us and so forth, so I had a sort of real hands-on experience doing projects with these people, going on all through the middle and late ’60s. It just rubbed off. And a lot of my friends from that period stayed around Memphis and kep in touch with that juke-joint scene, you know, so every time I would go back, I would end up in some really great place out in the middle of nowhere — that’s how I first heard Junior Kimbrough.
Were there any records issued from those Memphis blues festivals?
There was an album from the 1968 blues festival on Sire Records, but I think it probably belongs to Blue Horizons now — The Memphis Country Blues Festival.
What would a bill be like at this festival?
It was just one day and night for the first three years, then in 1969 it got to be two or three, because just everybody wanted to play on it. It would be, like, Furry Lewis, Booker White, Fred McDoweIl, Yank RacheIl, Rev. Robert Wilkins, Nathan Beauregard, Sleepy John Estes — yeah, I think those are like the main guys.
There’s a record called Memphis Swamp Jam made at the ’69 blues festival — it was done in the studio, but it was all the guys that came in for the festival. It was an amazing bunch of people, and I think the book [Deep Blues] really starts from that, you know, from knowing those people on their turf.
At the same time it’s like…I mean, it’s not like I feel like I’m on this mission to go around to record blues per se. It’s more a matter of individual artists, really, at this point. That’s something that I feel very strongly, because-really, the thing that’s going on with Fat Possum pretty much is that the core of it is R.L. Burnside and junior Kimbrough and their families, and they live next door to each other, and they both play at this juke joint that used to be a church-although it’s been reclaimed — and it’s just… it’s a scene, it’s a family scene, it’s a multiple generation scene, it’s a scene where there’s music going on all the time, you know, and it’s part of the culture, part of the community.
I always find it real inspiring when people have such a strong music thing in their community that all of the sort of media influence that seems to round off the edges of local styles and individual idiosyncrasies and stuff — it just seems to sort of wash off these people, because they’ve got such a strong thing together. So you find this incredible music, it’s in this little spot in Mississippi, there’s a very tightly knit community that’s got its own style of music, and you go five miles, ten miles away and you find something real different going on.
How close is that to where the fife and drum music is still happening?
It’s the same area, exactly. It’s not the Delta, you know, it’s a different part of Mississippi.This area that we’re involved in is the north Mississippi hills, over by Como and Senatobia, up to around Holly Springs and Oxford-that’s about the’ eastern extreme of it. [gets map] See, now this is Marshall County, and Holly Springs is up there.
So it’s east of the Choctaw Ridge, which is like the eastern edge of the Delta…
Yeah, right. And that music in the hill country, really, it changes, but it doesn’t seem to get modernized the same way the stuff does in the Delta. It’s pretty much blues bands there, whereas the north Mississippi thing is like, totally idiosyncratic song structures and a lot of, like, very local rhythms. You know, but the kids don’t always follow that music as well as you would like, because they think that the old guys should, like, puIl it fn and play those changes on the…
Right — play that shit on the money.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, and it’s like, that’s not the right way, and all that. So I knew I wanted to go in and get R.L. Burnside’s early repertoire, and get more of his electric country blues thing, and more of that northern Mississippi quality of the music, you know.
On this new R.L.record that’s coming out, I used one of his sons, who’s a rhythm guitarist, on bass, on one of the cuts. The other two people that are on it are this drummer who plays in one of the fife and drum bands there, and has for years, and he’s just totally north Mississippi.And a second guitar player, who grew up with Burnside, and also grew up around Fred McDowell, like Burnside did. That’s Kenny Brown — he happens to be white, but he’s from, like, within three miles from there. He grew up learning guitar from R.L and from Fred McDoweIl before that. In fact, he ran away from home when he was nine and stayed with Black blues singers, there in the neighborhood.
Actually, the only people that really ended up playing on the record are all people that all grew up within about, what, five miles of each other, and all had a certain generational thing that goes back at least to the ’60s and is rooted in the older music, through Fred McDoweIl and the people before that.
Now junior Kimbrough, the way that he works with the younger musicians around there, including some of R.L.’s sons and some of his own sons, he’s got ’em right on his structures, and his tunes have gotta be played just like that, on his own riff structures.
Sometimes it’s almost like Zeppelin or something — it’s almost like a very riff kind of, heavy, you know, and that’s the way his music is.
It’s really a whole different proposition recording each of these guys. With R.L. it’s like, “Here I am: Mr. Blues, Mr. Chaos — make a record on me, make me sound good.” And with Junior, it’s like, “Well, Junior, we’re gonna do a record, and we need ten songs,” and when he comes in he’s got ten songs, and he’s got one of R.L.’s sons and one of his sons, and they’re cookin’ on it.
And CeDell is just delightful to work with, but because of having had polio and all that, he tires real easy, you know. And certainly none of these folks is, like, really up for multiple takes.
That’s the trouble recording with groups of players, because, even if the band’s real quick and picks it up on the second take, the artiste has almost lost interest, you know? A lot of it with R.L. is just going back and deciding on what the songs were — you know, out of what was possible — and going back and recording different versions of them day by day. Or doing a version of one and then everybody laying out for a couple hours and doing something else, and then coming back and doing another session and recording the same piece over again…
It puts it into a daily life reality.
Yeah, which, since we recorded in the juke joint, and Junior’s home is next to R.L.’s home, it definitely is, I mean, it’s just as much a part of reality as it can get.
We haven’t really gone in to record live in the joint with audiences so far, because it is extremely chaotic, but the point to me is that they’re making music in a particular place, and they play in this place, and the place is the center of the community in many ways, and so they’ve got the sound of that place down.
That music up there, it’s just so real. I’m a real strong believer in the site-specific nature of this music, and I think if you take each one of these recordings, you’ll hear something distinctly different in each one — not necessarily better or worse, but different.
[Looking at photos from the sessions] Now that’s Peter Lee’s house, in Oxford — that’s where we recorded most of CeDell’s album, and one or two cuts from the R.L. album. When we were recording R.L. there one day. R.L. came with me, and R.L. is like, to me, he just is the blues, this guy, and it’s like — it’s walking chaos wherever he goes.
He walked in this day that we cut “Death Bell Blues,” and my friend Alex was there playing string bass, and Alex’s bass just fell apart. R.L. walked into the room, and the bass just kind of fell into pieces. And then we started to do another take, and I swear, Calvin hit the drum kit, and the drum kit fell apart. The drum kit just like… fell on the floor. It didn’t take much, not that drum kit, which is like, 90 percent duct tape anyway.
But the bass fell apart, and the drum kit fell apart, and then, like, that patio glass door that you see in there, that’s sort of leaning up? Well, from where it was leaning there, it just sort of fell toward the recording board, and it would have just basically totaled the recording board except my head was in the way.
So this big glass door falls and knocks me on the head, and after that, R.L. was just like… he looked jolly, you know, walking around snapping his fingers, and we ended up just recording him solo after the other instruments fell apart.
I’ve had some really supercharged experiences in north Mississippi. I think it’s worth mentioning that, out of the three Fat Possum albums that I’ve done, two of them have had lightning strike during a take. The end of that thing on the Junior Kimbrough CD [“Slow Lightning”], where lightning struck, and then lightning struck on this “Death Bell Blues” on R.L.’s album, and it’s always real appropriate — it doesn’t seem real random, but more like punctuation for what’s happening.
When we recorded Deep Blues… you know, when we went out and originally did “Devil Blues” way out in the swamps, first we filmed and recorded it and the film came out white — it was all blanked out. And nobody could explain it — nobody would even try. They were recording the sound on analog tape, so that worked, but the digital tape in the camera wouldn’t even come out. We had to go back and reshoot it, so the music on the CD is not the same music as in the movie because of that.
And there was this other thing when we were recording Deep Blues — we were recording at Junior’s joint, and I was listening to the tapes from the session, just sitting there listening to everything, and I got to this one point where R.L. was wandering around in Junior’s joint real late at night, and the microphones were still open, and he’s saying to himself, “The Devil. That’s who I’ve been serving — the Devil.” The guy is saying this stuff when he thinks nobody is listening, you know?