R.L. Burnside, 78, a Mississippi blues singer whose rough, roguish life was reflected in his raw songs about violence, sex and hard luck, died Sept. 1 at a hospital in Memphis. No cause of death was reported, but he had had a heart attack in recent years.
A sharecropper who grew up plowing fields behind a team of mules, Mr. Burnside performed the simple, unadorned blues of his native northern Mississippi, weaving his experiences into his music. He sang and played guitar in juke joints for decades but was little known outside Mississippi until he was featured in a 1992 documentary, "Deep Blues."
From 1991 to 2001, Mr. Burnside recorded seven albums and performed in clubs throughout the country and overseas. He collaborated with such unlikely artists as Kid Rock and the art-rock group Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Even when his music was placed in an unfamiliar context, it still pulsated with the force of Mr. Burnside's guttural voice and strong personality.
One of his songs, "It's Bad You Know," was used on the soundtrack of the HBO series "The Sopranos."
Mr. Burnside's most popular album, which he recorded in one afternoon in 1996, was "A Ass Pocket of Whiskey." Backed by Spencer's band, the songs were set in an industrial techno-rock framework, prompting one critic to say that it "may well be the worst blues album ever made." Even so, it sold several hundred thousand copies and gave Mr. Burnside a measure of financial stability late in life.
Unlike the familiar Delta blues, with their arching melodies and shifting chord structures, Mr. Burnside's music derived from the more rhythmic fife-and-drum tradition of northern Mississippi. His songs often contained just a single chord, with a droning, grunting style of vocal delivery that gathered force through repetition until it reached an almost incantatory state.
The titles of Mr. Burnside's songs -- "Snake Drive," "Jumper on the Line," "Hard Time Killin' Floor," "Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down" -- were earthy and enigmatic. Their lyrics often addressed the miseries of life with an odd blend of confession and minimalist poetry: "I'm not afraid of being insane. Been here too long and I've seen too much. I got messed up. Ooh, I got messed up."
In both his life and his music, Mr. Burnside seemed to embody the very spirit of the blues. Even his dog, which was featured on an album cover, wasn't immune: It was killed in a drive-by shooting.
"The way people was treated back in those olden days -- that's what the blues is all about," he said. "Working for the man, you couldn't say nothing, but you could sing about it."
Robert Lee Burnside was born Nov. 23, 1926, and spent most of his life in Holly Springs, Miss. He began to play guitar at 16 and was influenced by the music of Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and a neighbor, Fred McDowell.
In the 1940s, Mr. Burnside moved to Chicago, where he often spent time at the home of Muddy Waters, who was married to Mr. Burnside's first cousin.
Soon after his father, two brothers and two uncles were killed within eight months of one another, Mr. Burnside left Chicago and returned to Mississippi. In the 1950s, he went to prison for six months after killing a man over a dice game in Tennessee.
"I didn't mean to kill nobody," he said in 2003. "I just meant to shoot the son of a [expletive] in the head and two times in the chest. Him dying was between him and the Lord."
After he was released, Mr. Burnside played music when he wasn't working as a farm laborer and fisherman to support his 12 children. Several of his sons, grandsons and in-laws played in his band.
He once said he would need a computer to count all his grandchildren and, in recent years, put a padlock on his refrigerator to keep the people wandering through his trailer home from taking food intended for his diabetic wife.
"He has such a raw spirit, and it's a spirit that's kept him alive through a lot of corrupt places, like prison," Matthew Johnson, founder of Fat Possum Records, for which Mr. Burnside recorded, told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. "His music can only come from the kind of life that he's led."
Alan Lomax recorded Mr. Burnside in 1959 for the folk and blues collection of the Library of Congress, and he made a few albums in the 1960s and 1970s. But it wasn't until blues historian Robert Palmer featured him in "Deep Blues" that his fame began to spread.
Amused by his sudden following, particularly among young white fans, Mr. Burnside continued to live by his wits and whims.
He often wouldn't show up at the studio to record his own albums and demanded his pay in cash.
Once, when walking past an open microphone at a club, he was heard to mutter to himself, "The devil -- that's who I've been serving."
Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Alice Mae Burnside, and 12 children.