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Clip: Fat Possum documentary on DVD

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  • Carl Zimring
    Fat Boys A gang of seedy, elderly Mississippi bluesmen anchors Fat Possum Records and the
    Message 1 of 1 , May 5, 2005
      <http://www.eastbayexpress.com/Issues/2005-05-04/music/music2.html>

      Fat Boys
      A gang of seedy, elderly Mississippi bluesmen anchors Fat Possum Records
      and the label's new documentary.
      By Adam Bregman

      Published: Wednesday, May 4, 2005

      In this day and age of media overload, it's astonishing that the wilds of
      America can still conceal vital, outstanding music that remains unrecorded
      and largely unheard. But Matthew Johnson, a skinny white boy from
      Mississippi, found a heap in his own backyard. In the early '90s, turned on
      to blues by a University of Mississippi class taught by rock critic and
      historian Robert Palmer, Johnson was inspired to seek out nearby elderly
      blues guitarists. Though he flunked the class, the young future label mogul
      went on to meet and record R.L. Burnside (a former cohort of Mississippi
      Fred McDowell), Junior Kimbrough (a local juke-joint owner, superb guitar
      player, and father of 28 children), Cedell Davis (a crippled but resolute
      guitarist), and T-Model Ford (an illiterate former convict who picked up
      his first guitar at age 58).

      This staple of rockin' seniors formed the core roster of Johnson's lauded
      Mississippi record label, Fat Possum. "R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough
      would play on Sundays for $2 admission, and they would just tear it up," he
      recalls. "I didn't really know what I was doing, but I just wanted to
      record those two guys. I will never forget the first time that I saw R.L. I
      asked a buddy to show him to me, and there were all these cows on the road
      and it was pouring rain. I walked over, and I remember he rolled down the
      window of his Chrysler station wagon. There was a six-pack in his lap, and
      he had every fucking warning light on in the car. He had no career
      ambition, was sixty years old and drunk as fuck. It was such a pure thing,
      so I thought we should corrupt it."

      The documentary You See Me Laughin': The Last of the Hill Country Bluesmen
      -- originally released in 2002, and now out on DVD -- tells the hard-luck,
      murder-and-mayhem tales of Fat Possum's roster of ex-con bluesmen. Take
      R.L. Burnside. A sharecropper most of his life, he decamped to Chicago in
      his early twenties to play the blues, only to see his father, two brothers,
      and an uncle killed in unrelated incidents. He gave as good as he got,
      though -- R.L. also tells the story of how he shot a man in the back of the
      head over a $400 gambling debt. (He claims he served only six months.)
      Burnside and T-Model Ford look like cuddly grandpas nowadays, but they used
      to be real badasses: In a barfight, Ford himself was stabbed before
      slitting a man's throat with a switchblade and winding up on a chain gang.

      The documentary uses pen drawings to illustrate the bluesmen's seedy
      stories, but the musicians' words are often more effective. Burnside
      unemotionally tells his tale of shooting a man, but you can see the pain in
      Ford's face when he recalls his rough and often abusive childhood.

      Suffering for your art is a blues cliché, but these fucked-up experiences
      have led to some mean-sounding, entirely authentic regional music --
      although sometimes out of key and strident, Fat Possum songs nevertheless
      cut to the core in expressing heartbreak and anger. The live performances
      are what make Laughin' so estimable. There's footage of Burnside playing in
      the 1970s, singing some seductive music with a group of women dancing
      around him; Junior Kimbrough, meanwhile, is captured in a far more recent
      performance at his juke joint, effortlessly letting loose with his relaxed,
      soulful guitar sound.

      Who is ultimately responsible for this? Two white boys: the pessimistic,
      articulate redneck Johnson and his chubby, thick-eyeglasses-favoring
      partner Bruce Watson. They provide much of the narrative for You See Me
      Laughin' and revel in the down-to-earth pennilessness of Fat Possum's
      finances. The pair acts like a bridge between a still-rowdy Southern
      grandfather like R.L. Burnside and a chic New York act like the Jon Spencer
      Blues Explosion, taking the last true Mississippi bluesmen and plugging
      them into the outside world of punk rock and hip-hop.

      "I'm not a documentarian," Johnson notes (Laughin' was directed by Mandy
      Stein). "It's important to me that they are treated like real artists, and
      not like a fuckin' butterfly collection. I want to take somebody who hasn't
      left the rural South -- or the county -- to Europe, to make money and then
      watch all the problems that come of that." He pauses to laugh, wondering
      aloud if he sounds like an asshole. "There's kind of a Ringling Brothers
      thing to that," he admits. "But that's all it is at the end of the day,
      like getting R.L. to open for the Beastie Boys or Junior Kimbrough opening
      for Iggy Pop."

      It's debatable whether Fat Possum's efforts to modernize its artists --
      remixes of Burnside's tunes, R.L.'s collaboration with Jon Spencer, or the
      more recent Junior Kimbrough tribute album -- have really worked; the label
      caught a lot of flak from purists, though the results were hardly awful.
      But Fat Possum has done a brilliant job of distributing its records to an
      audience beyond blues diehards, and the mainstream has noticed -- Laughin'
      includes glowing testimonials from industry big-shots like Iggy Pop and
      Bono. And overall, the label has rescued vital music that might never have
      been recorded, and in the process provided a source of income for a group
      of musicians who'd resigned themselves to quietly living out the end of
      their lives in rustic squalor.

      You Can See Me Laughin' is a good place to begin for the Fat Possum novice.
      Those moving on to CDs should check out R.L. Burnside's First Recordings
      and Mississippi Hill Country Blues, T-Model Ford's You Better Keep Still,
      Jimmy Lee Williams' Hoot Your Belly, Joe Callicott's Ain't a Gonna Lie to
      You, and splendid Ohio blues-rock duo the Black Keys' Thickfreakness.

      Fat Possum has suffered bankruptcy, loads of legal trouble, years of
      indebtedness, and a recent unhappy separation from punk label Epitaph, its
      former joint-venture partner, which has led to a currently pending lawsuit
      (no comment from either side). "We're still here," Johnson says. "Survival
      is triumph. We don't have a swimming pool or anything like that. But
      business isn't abysmal. I've run it up to a million in the hole before. I
      guess now it's better than it's ever been."

      "I'm not a documentarian," Johnson notes (Laughin' was directed by Mandy
      Stein). "It's important to me that they are treated like real artists, and
      not like a fuckin' butterfly collection. I want to take somebody who hasn't
      left the rural South -- or the county -- to Europe, to make money and then
      watch all the problems that come of that." He pauses to laugh, wondering
      aloud if he sounds like an asshole. "There's kind of a Ringling Brothers
      thing to that," he admits. "But that's all it is at the end of the day,
      like getting R.L. to open for the Beastie Boys or Junior Kimbrough opening
      for Iggy Pop."

      It's debatable whether Fat Possum's efforts to modernize its artists --
      remixes of Burnside's tunes, R.L.'s collaboration with Jon Spencer, or the
      more recent Junior Kimbrough tribute album -- have really worked; the label
      caught a lot of flak from purists, though the results were hardly awful.
      But Fat Possum has done a brilliant job of distributing its records to an
      audience beyond blues diehards, and the mainstream has noticed -- Laughin'
      includes glowing testimonials from industry big-shots like Iggy Pop and
      Bono. And overall, the label has rescued vital music that might never have
      been recorded, and in the process provided a source of income for a group
      of musicians who'd resigned themselves to quietly living out the end of
      their lives in rustic squalor.

      You Can See Me Laughin' is a good place to begin for the Fat Possum novice.
      Those moving on to CDs should check out R.L. Burnside's First Recordings
      and Mississippi Hill Country Blues, T-Model Ford's You Better Keep Still,
      Jimmy Lee Williams' Hoot Your Belly, Joe Callicott's Ain't a Gonna Lie to
      You, and splendid Ohio blues-rock duo the Black Keys' Thickfreakness.

      Fat Possum has suffered bankruptcy, loads of legal trouble, years of
      indebtedness, and a recent unhappy separation from punk label Epitaph, its
      former joint-venture partner, which has led to a currently pending lawsuit
      (no comment from either side). "We're still here," Johnson says. "Survival
      is triumph. We don't have a swimming pool or anything like that. But
      business isn't abysmal. I've run it up to a million in the hole before. I
      guess now it's better than it's ever been."
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