R. L. Burnside (November 23, 1926 – September 1, 2005) was an American blues singer, songwriter and guitarist. He played music for much of his life but received little recognition before the early 1990s. In the latter half of that decade.
Burnside was born in 1926 to Earnest Burnside and Josie Malone, in either Harmontown, College Hill, or Blackwater Creek, all of which are in the rural part of Lafayette County, Mississippi, near the area that would be covered by Sardis Lake a few years later. His first name is given variously as R. L., Rural, Robert Lee, Rule, or Ruel. His father left the family early on, and R. L. grew up with his mother, grandparents, and several siblings.
He played the harmonica and dabbled with playing guitar, beginning at the age of 16. He said he first played in public at age 21 or 22. He learned mostly from Mississippi Fred McDowell, who had lived near Burnside since Burnside was a child. He first heard McDowell playing at age 7 or 8 and eventually joined his gigs to play a late set. Other local teachers were his uncle-in-law Ranie Burnette, who was a popular player from Senatobia; the mostly unknown Henry Harden, Son Hibbler, Jesse Vortis, and Burnside’s brother-in-law; and possibly Stonewall Mays. Burnside cited church singing and fife-and-drum picnics as elements of his childhood’s musical landscape, and he credited Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and John Lee Hooker as influences in adulthood.
In the late 1940s he moved to Chicago, where his father had lived since he separated from his mother, in the hope of finding better economic opportunities. He found jobs at metal and glass factories, had the company of Muddy Waters (his cousin-in-law), and enjoyed the blues scene on Maxwell Street. But things did not turn out as he had hoped; within the span of one year his father, two brothers, and two uncles were all murdered in the city.
Three years after coming to Chicago, Burnside went back south. He married Alice Mae Taylor in 1949 or 1950, his second marriage. He moved several times in the 1950s, between Memphis, Tennessee, the Mississippi Delta and the hill country of northern Mississippi. During his time in the Delta, he met bluesmen Robert Lockwood Jr. and Aleck ”Rice” Miller. It seems it was around that time that Burnside killed a man, possibly at a craps game, was convicted of murder and incarcerated in Parchman Farm. He would later relate that his boss at the time had arranged to release him after six months, as he needed Burnside’s skills as a tractor driver.
A second heart attack in November 2002 resulted in a surgery in 2003, and short-circuited any future career plans he had. Yet Burnside continued as guest singer on occasions, such as at Bonnaroo Music Festival, 2004, his last public appearance. He died at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee on September 1, 2005, at the age of 78. Services were held at Rust College, in Holly Springs, with burial in the Free Springs Cemetery, in Harmontown. Around the time of his death, he resided in Byhalia, Mississippi.