Little Boy's Blues

YOU GOTTA HAND it to Matthew Johnson; at least he's honest. Ask the founder of Fat Possum Records about the controversial cover art of his two most successful projects--R.L. Burnside's A Ass Pocket of Whiskey and Mr. Wizard--and he'll answer flatly: "If women are going to be offended by the covers, they're probably not going to like the lyrics either." He's got a point. Both album covers (illustrated by Derek Hess) feature a caricature of Burnside and two buxom blondes in absurdly sluttish poses. On Ass Pocket, the women have their backs-- rather, their Daisy-Duke-clad asses--jutted toward Burnside as he poses in mid-shimmy, a smirk on his face and a belt strap in his hand. The music inside is equally licentious, yet sexy in its rawness. Burnside's deep-blues style--with theremin, Casio, and drum attacks thrown in the mix--is as hot as the cover photos.

This makes for a certain bad-boy appeal. And it's no coincidence that Burnside's only national attention has come through the help of the ultimate boy-rock punk band, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. JSBX played on both Burnside releases and recently backed Burnside on tour. When asked about this male-oriented marriage of indie-rocking and sharecropping, Johnson responded in a quiet, polite voice, "Maybe the women [on the covers] like to be beaten, I don't know. It's a cartoon, I guess. What are we going to do, take a picture of a black man on a porch?"

But he might have considered the option. Back in '91, Johnson moved to Holly Springs, Mississippi, to find the last of the great blues musicians. In the space of two months he put 10,000 miles on his car as he combed juke joints searching for artists like Burnside. His project's goal: "We're in it for the money."

If this implies a raw cynicism, Johnson defends himself as an entrepreneur working to improve a long tradition of bluesploitation. Legendary blues archivist/historian Alan Lomax paid Honeyboy Edwards only $20 for his work, and Son House received only a cold Coke.

"We never recorded anyone that we didn't give 300 bucks just for a demo session," Johnson says. "What Al Lomax did, I can't address that. I don't care about history. The liner notes [on the Lomax releases] are like they're masturbating about all the great times they had, how Lead Belly got married in their living room in Connecticut. I don't give a shit about that. That doesn't mean I said, 'Hey Derek, do you wanna make some money female bashing?' But it worked, and we might have to keep doing it forever." (Christina Schmitt) CP

R.L.Burnside plays Friday at First Avenue with "Spider" John Koerner; see A List for details.

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