The offices of Fat Possum Records are located with wild incongruity between a police station and a Baptist church in the small, god-fearing town of Water Valley, Mississippi, where the lawns are deep and green and possession of beer is a criminal offence. I walk through the unmarked front door and past two weasel pelts on a hat rack and ask how things have been going.
‘No worse than usual,’ says Matthew Johnson, 34, the dishevelled, hard-drinking, fiercely iconoclastic founder of Fat Possum. He is limping around with two pins sticking out of his toes, having lost his temper, kicked a wall, broken two toes, ignored them as they healed crooked, then finally gone to hospital to have them re-broken and pinned, with little yellow plastic balls on the pinheads.
‘We’ve signed this new guy Charles “Cadillac” Caldwell and we’re real excited about him.’ Trouble is, he’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. ‘A touch of the pancreatic,’ is how he puts it. ‘It’s so fucking sad. He’s only 60.’
Paul ‘Wine’ Jones, another of the ageing Mississippi bluesmen to whom Fat Possum’s fortunes are tied, has been jailed for drunk driving again, halting the production of his new album. ‘At least he didn’t kill anybody,’ says Bruce Watson, 39, the other half of Fat Possum, an irreverent preacher’s son who produces most of the records and keeps a hand grenade by his desk. Two of Fat Possum’s best-known artists, R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford, have gone to prison for killing people and T-Model served his time on a chain gang.
Johnny Farmer killed his wife but that was an accident; he was trying to shoot a deer. He is refusing to record any more songs because blues is the devil’s music. It brings a curse on everyone who plays it and then you burn in hell.
‘T-Model Ford got robbed for 2,000 dollars the other day,’ says Johnson. ‘Then someone threw a brick through his window. Then the 88-year-old white woman who was teaching him how to read and write got raped and beaten to death. This all went down in Greenville (Mississippi), which is one of the worst shitholes in America for violence and crack and degenerate goddamn madness. We’d like to get T-Model out of there but he won’t leave.’
What about R.L. Burnside? From the very beginning, Fat Possum has operated amid chaos and disaster, racking up terrible debts, going through hideous legal wrangles and distribution nightmares, and all the while dealing with a troublesome, mutinous crew of musicians. R.L. Burnside is no slouch when it comes to trouble – Johnson has lost count of how many cars he has destroyed, for example, or the number of times he has failed to show up at the recording studio – but as their bestselling artist Burnside has done more than anyone to keep the leaky, listing vessel Fat Possum afloat.
Come On In, an album of Burnside’s blues remixed with hip-hop beats, sold 180,000 worldwide and furnished a very lucrative song to The Sopranos soundtrack album. Ass Pocket of Whiskey, a Burnside collaboration with the young, punk-influenced rockers the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion sold more than 100,000 and opened up a whole new audience – young, white and hip – for the kind of raw, stomping, electrified Mississippi blues played by the old black men on Fat Possum. ‘R.L. doesn’t want to do any more tours, or learn any new songs, or write any new songs, or basically even pick up a guitar. But if I drive up to his house he might sing a few lines into a tape recorder,’ says Watson. ‘I can’t blame him. He’s 76 years old, he had a heart attack eight months ago and he’s making good money just sitting on his front porch – way better money than he’s ever made in his life.’
Nor is R.L. Burnside eager to talk to any more journalists, but Johnson and Watson have considered my request and come up with a plan. They hand me an envelope containing $2,000 in cash and a map to Burnside’s house. ‘This is his latest royalty payment,’ says Watson. ‘I’ll call him and say you’re going to deliver it and you’d like to talk to him. He may talk, he may not, but whatever you do, make sure you give him the money personally. If any of his kids say they’ll give it to him, you hold on to the money and find R.L. In fact, I wouldn’t even mention to any of his kids that you’ve got two grand in your pocket.’
R.L. Burnside’s total earnings were in the low six figures last year. In the past 10 years he has earned well over half a million dollars. The entrance to his property is marked by two 50-gallon oil drums spilling over with rubbish and forming a small lake of rubbish about 10 feet wide. Elsewhere, in the front yard, there are stray beer cans and dirty nappies floating in mud puddles, mangy dogs and prowling cats, seven vehicles in various states of disrepair, and in the thick, steamy summer heat the whole place is buzzing with flies.
The Burnside clan, about 15 or 20 of them, and sometimes upwards of 25, live in two trailers on a quarter acre of weeds and bare, coppery earth in the backwoods hill country near Chulahoma, Mississippi. The larger trailer is grimy but sturdy-looking, with a solid wooden front porch. The smaller trailer is cracked, mouldering and swaybacked, connected for electricity by an orange extension cord snaking across the yard.
Leaning against one of the cars are three young men with jheri curls and baseball caps, drinking big 40-ounce bottles of Cobra malt liquor at 9.30 in the morning. I nod and say hello. They scowl back and say nothing. A little girl scampers up from under the porch and runs into the big trailer shouting, ‘White man here!’
R.L. comes lumbering out onto the porch, looking old and tired, wearing mud-smeared trousers held up with braces and a checked shirt fraying at the collar. His eyes are bloodshot. The pupils have a thin outer rim of blue. Big, dark liver spots extend back from his cheekbones to his ears. ‘Bruce called me,’ he growls. ‘Two thousand, right?’ ‘That’s right. Have you got time to talk?’ ‘Little bit I reckon.’
I hand over the money and get him to sign a hand-written receipt. ‘Has Fat Possum been paying you right?’ I ask. ‘Yeah, they done right by me, I reckon, but the money goes quick. I got 12 kids and you need a damn computer to count my grandkids. Then we got all these second cousins showing up and every one of them needs money.’
‘Do any of your kids have jobs?’
‘Ain’t much work around here. One of my sons plays a little music.’
‘Which one of these vehicles are you driving?’
‘That van over there except it needs a new fuel pump. Only one of these that runs is my grandson’s over there.’
From inside the trailer comes a terrible racket of screaming children, barking dogs, a man and a woman yelling at the children and each other, making liberal use of the oedipal noun, and a television game show turned up full blast. R.L. Burnside sits on his plastic porch chair as calm and motionless as a stone Buddha, then his hand flashes out to swat a fly on his leg. I remember something Bruce Watson told me about Burnside and lethal snakes. ‘I heard you used to grab rattlesnakes and copperheads by the tail and snap them like a whip to break their necks.’
He brightens and smiles. ‘Man, I was hell on them snakes,’ he says. ‘One time a copperhead got under my son’s bed. I told him to go and grab it. He said, “Daddy, is it poisonous?” I told him, “No son, that’s just an old blacksnake. He won’t hurt you. You go in there and grab him behind the head.” So he went on and grabbed up that snake and threw it out. Then I told him, “That was a copperhead!”‘ He laughs his deep, deep chuckle, heh heh heh, repeats the punchline and laughs some more.
How old was his son was at the time? ‘Oh he was up around 13, 14 years old. I got him good with that one.’
I ask him about the man he killed and he gives a variation of his standard response: ‘I didn’t mean to kill nobody. I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head and two times in the chest. Him dying was between him and the Lord.’
It happened at a dice game long ago; Burnside had beaten the man out of $400. In court he claimed self-defence, although one of the bullets entered the back of the victim’s head. Burnside was working for a powerful white plantation owner at the time, driving a tractor. His boss wanted him back at work so he fixed things with the judge and R.L. ended up serving only six months.
As a young man, as part of the great black migration away from sharecropping, lynching parties and Jim Crow laws, Burnside went north to Chicago. Muddy Waters had married his first cousin and he would go over to their house two or three times a week and play the blues with Muddy. He left Chicago because five family members, including his father and two brothers, were murdered there in eight months. He came back down to Mississippi and worked various farm jobs for 40 years, playing the blues at house parties, juke joints and local festivals, until Matthew Johnson heard him one night and decided to record him.
Now he has toured all over America and the world, appeared on television, earned a small fortune, and none of it seems to have changed him in the slightest. Has he enjoyed his musical success? ‘Well, there’s a lot of travelling and fussing around but I can always use money around here.’
After his heart attack he gave up drinking on doctor’s orders. At first he couldn’t imagine life without alcohol but now he doesn’t miss it. Nor does he miss playing music, an activity that was intimately connected with drinking. He tried playing a little recently, for the first time in more than a year, and it felt like he had to learn all over again. ‘I’m getting too old for all that,’ he says and gets to his feet, signalling that the interview is over.
One last question: how does he like the remixes of his music that Fat Possum has put out? ‘At first I didn’t like them too much,’ he says. ‘Then I saw how much money they were making and I got to liking them pretty well.’
Matthew Johnson is driving the country roads around Water Valley in his big, dented, Chevrolet pick-up truck, sipping on a cocktail, rolling through the woods and fields and swamps with no destination in mind and the stereo turned up loud. To really hear a piece of music he has to take it for a test drive. For the third time he plays a new song Fat Possum has been working on, a collaboration between R.L. Burnside and Kid Rock, the white hard-rock rapper from Detroit who has sold 17 million records in four years. Burnside’s guitar and vocals have been sampled and mixed with a beat, some overdubs and a verse and chorus from Kid Rock. Neither artist gave them much to work with but the styles blend in an ear-catching way and song is full of energy and attitude. ‘Fuck yeah,’ says Johnson. ‘It sounds good, doesn’t it? Working with R.L. has taught us all about squeezing out the last piece of toothpaste from the tube.’
When Johnson and Watson first started doing rock and hip hop collaborations with Burnside they came under heavy attack from purists. It gave Johnson great pleasure to outrage the ‘blues geeks’, as he calls them, but that wasn’t his motivation. For the label to survive it was essential to put out new music by its best-known artist, and R.L. was not learning or writing any new songs. Johnson was also looking for a way to make the blues relevant to a young audience, by framing its essential feeling in a modern context. ‘I was never in this as an archivist or a folklorist, recording these guys for posterity. It was the energy and intensity that attracted me.’
In 1991 Matthew Johnson was 22 years old, drinking like a maniac, getting into crazy scrapes, doing a lot of hard drugs with loaded pistols and vodka bottles strewn across the table. He was also attending the University of Mississippi on an occasional basis and had written some reviews for a blues magazine – ‘all these crappy bands from Sweden and New Jersey, doing covers of “Sweet Home Chicago”.’
One Sunday he drove out to Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint, a rough-hewn saloon and dance shack out in the woods, where R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough played the blues until dawn to a moonshine-swilling crowd. Johnson was blown away by the raw power of the music and decided immediately that it needed recording. He had a $400 student loan cheque coming in and that was how Fat Possum began.
Now he is 34 and looks closer to 43, with a weary, distracted, slightly deranged air and a deep, dark, razor-cutting sense of humour, although not half as dark as R.L. Burnside’s. A sensible man would have given up long ago. A less scrappy, tenacious and resourceful one would have been put under by bankers and lawyers. By the mid-1990s Fat Possum was a million dollars in debt. One year Johnson’s bank charged him $14,000 in bounced cheque fees alone, at $17 per cheque. For two years Fat Possum was unable to release any music because of a legal battle with its distributor, Capricorn Records.
Junior Kimbrough, perhaps Fat Possum’s greatest discovery, a man who reconfigured the blues into a kind of lo-fi, backwoods trance music, was the first artist to die. He left 36 children, many of whom were convinced Fat Possum owed them money. Then Asie Payton died, after only one recording session, and Johnny Farmer quit, and R.L. Burnside went into retirement, and so on.
The only new discovery they’ve made in years is Charles ‘Cadillac’ Caldwell, a retired factory worker and hound breeder who still sings the rough, old-time blues, with a moaning, shouting, spine-chilling vocal style, but it looks as though his first album will be his last. ‘Basically the blues was dying when we started and now it’s over,’ says Johnson. ‘The only guy we’ve got who’s still running strong is T-Model Ford. There’s some weird Dorian Gray shit happening with him. He’s 80 now and he just keeps getting stronger.’
Last year T-Model Ford recorded a new album and played 150 shows. Towards the end of the tour he was complaining of blood in his urine and everyone assumed it was prostate cancer. They took him to the doctor who made an inspection and announced that T-Model, at the age of 79, had managed to contract gonorrhea.
Walking with a cane and his tall, gap-toothed, mentally impaired drummer Spam following, T-Model Ford makes a grand entrance into the Fat Possum offices, flashing his false teeth in a big, charismatic smile.
‘I’m the Taildragger from Greenville, Muz-sippi! Ooo-weee, I make the pretty womens jump and shout! They took my gun but I got my knife and I’ll cut a motherfucker too. Can’t read, can’t write, I don’t argue with folks about the Bible but I love the womens! I love ‘em cause of that little split they got. I got three womens right now and they won’t let ol’ T-Model alone. I’m a bad man! I can’t get around like I used to but if I can reach a motherfucker, look out! I knocked out that Winehead Jones with this.’
He raises up his clenched right fist and bicep, which look as though they belong to a strong man in his fifties. He did indeed knock Paul ‘Wine’ Jones unconscious with one blow, during a squabble over whose white woman belonged to whom. Tomorrow T-Model is scheduled to play at a festival in Canada, a country he pronounces variously as ‘Canna’, ‘Canny’ and ‘Can’. Last time he went there, he got up on stage and said, ‘Hey, it’s great to be overseas in Germany. I love the womens over here.’ He also speaks highly of ‘the little white women from Jay-pan’. T-Model never went to school, can’t read a map or a roadsign and has no geographical sense whatsoever.
Before Fat Possum found him, he had spent his life in Deep South logging camps and on the chain gang for killing a man with a 25-cent pocketknife in a bar-room altercation. He fathered 26 children and started playing the guitar on the night his fifth wife left him, at the age of 58.
I ask T-Model if I can hear him play. ‘Let’s go,’ he says and we get into his big blue 1979 Lincoln Continental and drive across the railroad tracks to a corner house in a part of Water Valley I have never seen before. An old man with one eye and no teeth is in a wheelchair on a rotting front porch, trying to attach a prosthetic leg to his stump. ‘Hey Pete!’ yells T-Model. ‘Y’all got any elec-quickery up in there? We fixin’ to play a little music.’
‘Hey bluesman, you come on. We got electric,’ says Pete and then his leg falls off with a clatter. ‘I ain’t never gonna get used to this damn fool leg.’
T-Model gets out his guitar and amp and the bottle of Jack and sets himself up on a chair on the porch. The music and the whiskey soon draw a crowd of afternoon drunks and a few curious mothers and small children. T-Model is flashing his smile, playing his rough, eccentric blues with raucous exuberance: ‘I wanna rock you baby, till I drop dead in your arms.’ There is violence and strangeness in his music, but no hint of the sadness or pain traditional in the blues. Matthew Johnson describes him as ‘a happy-go-lucky psychopath’.
T-Model’s life reads like a horror story. At the age of eight, his father beat him so badly between the legs with a piece of firewood that he lost a testicle. His ankles are scarred from the chain gang. His neck is scarred where one of his wives slashed his throat. He has been shot, stabbed, pinned under a fallen tree with a broken ribcage, beaten unconscious with a metal chair. He watched his first wife go off with his own father, watched another die after she drank poison to try and induce a miscarriage. The only woman he ever really loved poisoned him at the breakfast table; he woke up in hospital that afternoon and never saw her again.
‘I play the blues,’ he says during a whiskey break. ‘But I don’t ever get the blues. After my sister died I prayed to God to please let me live like a tree. Tree don’t care if them other trees is dyin’. Tree don’t care about nothin’. When they raped and killed that white lady, I felt bad – she was a good old white lady – but I didn’t let it get me down. I don’t let nothin’ get me down.’ Most people can’t do this – stay happy because they’ve decided to be happy, no matter what – but it seems to work for T-Model.
As the sun goes down, three men are inside T-Model’s Lincoln, rifling it for something to steal. Vehicles are drawing up to buy crack from a young man in a ‘Jesus’ T-shirt. An old man with a bowler hat and mad yellow eyes is coming towards me, trying to polish a peach on his leg as if it were an apple and leaving long smears of juice on his red slacks. He grabs at my shirt and demands money for gin. Another man is threatening Spam with a wine bottle, and T-Model is yelling, ‘Get your hand out my pocket, motherfucker, I already give you two dollar!’
I pack up the gear, get T-Model behind the wheel, Spam in the back and we scramble out of there with everyone yelling and grabbing at the car. ‘Man, they some beggin’ motherfuckers around here,’ says T-Model. He drops me off at the Fat Possum offices and drives off towards the trailer at the recording studio, where he and Spam are staying.
An hour later, I recount this to Matthew Johnson and he says, ‘So you don’t know for sure that T-Model is in the trailer? We’d better drive out there and check.’ There’s no sign of T-Model at the trailer or at the Texaco station where he has been courting a woman.
‘I can’t believe he’d go back to that porch,’ I say.
‘Are you kidding?’ says Johnson. ‘That’s his normal, everyday reality. I’ll bet he’s back there, happy as a clam.’ And sure enough, there he is, about three-quarters drunk and playing to a bigger crowd.
What does a blues label do when the blues is over? With the help of parent company, Epitaph, who saved them from bankruptcy in 1996, Fat Possum managed to get Solomon Burke, the great deep soul singer, to record a collection of songs written for him by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, Brian Wilson and others. The album, Don’t Give up on Me , won a Grammy and has sold 300,000 worldwide.
Johnson also managed to sign The Black Keys, a lo-fi punk blues band, akin to The White Stripes. Last year was Fat Possum’s most successful but it didn’t furnish them with much confidence. Solomon Burke was a once-in-a-lifetime coup, they almost lost The Black Keys – and nothing else they released made any real money.
Matthew Johnson and Bruce Watson spend their days scrambling and hustling, trying to cook up new schemes to stay in business. Having released every scrap of music recorded by the late Junior Kimbrough, they are now trying to put together a Kimbrough tribute album. Johnson is trying to persuade the RZA, the hip hop producer from Wu-Tang Clan, to contribute to the new R.L. Burnside remix project, and coax a little more out of Kid Rock. Fat Possum has signed Grandpa Boy, a new band formed by Paul Westerberg from The Replacements. From a bankrupt record label, they have bought a vault of southern rural 1960s blues, so Fat Possum can keep putting out great blues.
‘I saw a guy on TV juggling a meat cleaver, a tomato and a bowling ball,’ says Johnson. ‘That’s how I feel most of the time but what else am I going to do? When I started out, I didn’t know what I was doing. Now I don’t know how to do anything else. I don’t have any choice but to carry on and hope a meat cleaver doesn’t slice off my toes.’
· While this issue was going to press, Charles ‘Cadillac’ Caldwell died.