America's Finest Slide Guitar Player?
By Michael Koster & Carter Grice
Mississippi native Kenny Brown, that trusty "white boy on guitar" in R.L. Burnside's words, is one of the finest slide guitar players in America. The lanky Mississippian has played a strong supporting role for hill-country bluesmen for much of his careeras Burnside's long-time guitarist, as a frequent player both in concert and on records with the late Junior Kimbrough, and as an unofficial student of the legendary Joe Callicott. Many of the most important blues recordings of the past decade have been stamped with Brown's singular imprint. On his first full-length record as a band leader, Goin' Back To Mississippi (Plum Tone), Brown draws from the same rich wellspring of tradition as his better-known collaborators. You'll hear that same mean slide and solid rhythm guitar, but it's more hands-down rock & roll, reminiscent of country/blues-tinged Exile-era Stones. In spite of such formidable achievements, Brown is virtually unknown outside blues circles.
Could you give us a sense of the early years when you first picked up a guitar?
When I was about 10, this was like 1963, on the back of a comic book you could order these seeds and sell seeds and get different prizes. So me and my brother got on our bicycles and rode around the countryside there selling seeds. And so I got a plastic guitar. It had plastic strings and came with a little book. I learned a little bit. Then one day I came home and my Mom bought me a Kay Archtop and I took a few lessons and learned some chords and stuff.... It was like "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Mary Had A Little Lamb," stuff like that. I just wasn't going too fast. I learned the chords okay. But the note stuff, you know, I was about ready to quit.
Then Joe Callicott moved in next door to me, and my brother came in from squirrel hunting one day and I was sittin' there trying to play my guitar and he said, "Why don't you go over and talk to that ol' man next door, you know he plays guitar...he plays pretty good too." So I went over and talked to him and he said, "Yeah, come on over." He told me later he thought I was gonna come over with some kind of toy guitar or something, and I came over with a good Archtop. He was like, "Hit it like this boy," and I got with him and it was like he adopted me then. So everyday I'd go over there and I'd see him before I went to school, and when I got off the bus that was the first place I went. Sit on the front porch in the summertime and in the wintertime we'd sit in by the potbellied stove and he'd teach me the songs. He taught me a lot of different shit 'bout life, ridin' horses, drivin' cars and shit. He used to tell me, like, when you go out to play git you one drink, don't get drunk, then later when you go home after that you can drink all you want to. Stuff like, if a fight breaks out, just grab your pool stick and back up in the corner. You can keep 'em off of you there [laughs].
I was 15 when he died. The day he died I had gotten in some trouble, so I kept going over to see Joe and he wasn't home. Finally he came in and he was drunk; he was settin' up in his chair and he kinda passed out. I'd never been around anybody drinking, so me and his wife put him in bed and had the doctor come up and give him a shot for his blood pressure 'cause he had trouble with that. In the middle of the night he rolled over and said, his wife told me later, "Kenny be a good boy and drive for yourself and the other fellow too." And he died. I was just gettin' my driver's license, so he was always tellin' me, "Drive for yourself and the other fellow too."
Was he teaching you his repertoire?
Yeah. "You Don't Know My Mind," "Frankie And Albert," "Goin Back To The Junction," "Rollin' And Tumblin'," all that stuff. He was gettin' ready to teach me to sing. He called me his boy, you know. Joe was a cool cat, real cool.
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Did you listen to records growing up?
Yeah. Right after Joe died, that summer I went to this blues festival in Memphis. I'd never been to a festival. I didn't know how long it went on or anything. My mom said, "What time are you gonna be back?" And I said, "Oh about six." I was gonna catch a ride with my buddy Bobby Ray. Anyway, there was like Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, Bukka White, and Nathan Beauregardall these cats, and I got to hang out with them. When that was over they got me stoned on the hash, and took me over to this damn Goodwill Review that had like Little Milton, B.B., Albert King, Johnny Winter, and Booker T. Johnny Winter blew my mind. He came out in his black top hat and a cape and everything, and had a three-piece band and just, he was just wailing, playing the shit out of the slide. So that was the first record I bought, that Progressive Blues, soon as I got outta trouble. 'Cause I got home at four o'clock in the morning. I was supposed to be home at six o'clock the night before. My mom had all the lights on in the house and I was stoned on hash. I said, "What do I do man?" They said, "Well just act normal." So I open the door, come on in, and they were sittin' on the couch. And I said, "What ch'all doin' up?" [laughs]. "Boy, where in the hell you been?" They'd had the cops looking for me, all kinds of shit. I was with my buddy Bobby Rayhe used to fight a lot when he was coming up, playing in bands and shit, he was pretty tough too, small but he badso the cops said, "Well we don't usually put a missing person thing out until they been missing for 72 hours, but since he's with Bobby Ray we're gonna do it."
As soon as I got outta trouble, I went out and bought that Johnny Winter record. Which was a good record to listen to 'cause he was playing all that Muddy Waters stuff. Johnny Winter, I don't think he really got what he deserved in his lifetime. He's real frail now. I don't know how much he's out touring, but he always puts out good records.
He just made a ton of dough. Did you see that commercial he's in with George Hamilton, American Express or something? You know how pale Johnny Winter is, and Hamilton is Mr. Tan. They're basically saying to each other in a polite way, "What the fuck is wrong with you?" It's hilarious.
I'd love to see that. George Hamilton, he always looks like he just got out of the tanning booth.
I think he's got a weekly pass. That is not a natural tan. Seeing him next to Winter is just hilarious. That would take care of things for the rest of your life Kenny, just do an AMEX commercial.
Did you play along with the records when you were young?
At that time I didn't know enough to. Joe would show me some slide; Joe would play with a knife flat in his lap. He showed me a couple songs on slide like that. Then Bobby Ray showed me the bottleneck thing. He showed me one song, that was my thing. For the next couple of weeks every day, I played that one song over and over. Bobby Ray turned me on to Johnny Woods, who used to play harmonica with Fred McDowell. I was about 17. That was a shock. Johnny was a character, man. The first time I met him I went into this big ol' house and there were all these black women sittin' around this big table playin' cards and drinking. I hadn't been around a lot of drinking, you know. Me and Bobby Ray set up in a little room, we're playing. Johnny gets off of work drivin' a tractor and he comes through the door, a little bitty guy. He busts through the door and jumps about three feet high in the air, and when he hit the floor, he had a harmonica in his mouth and a pint of whiskey in his hand. Whammm! It was like, whoa man, what was that! This is too much, too quick. [laughs] I had to get outta there. I ended up playing off and on with Johnny for about 20 years until he died in '89, maybe '90.
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There's a recording, Mississippi Delta Blues, Volume II, that has both Callicott and R.L. Burnside on it.
Yeah right. On the liner notes, I'm the 10-year-old white boy that Joe was talking about. I was up in my 20s 'fore I ever saw that album. In the late '60s [folklorist] George Mitchell came through and recorded R.L., and then he came up and recorded Joe Callicott. Neither one of 'em had met each other. R.L. came up to meet Joe about a week after he died. So that was like the first time I knew, like, shit, that's what I'm here to do. 'Cause I was the link between these two cats.
How did you first meet R.L.?
I guess about '71 or '72 I met R.L. A friend of mine put on a little festival and had a rock band playin', had R.L. come up and open for him. R.L. had a guy that didn't blow the harp but he would make the sounds. He didn't have a harmonica, but he sounded just like he was blowin' harp, he just put his hands around the microphone. And they played and I met R.L. and talked to him, said I played a little guitar, and said I liked what he was doin' and I'd like to learn some from him. He said come on down to the house. Told me where he lived. Started going down there two or three nights a week. I was doin' construction work at the time. I'd get off, he'd get off the tractor, and we'd sit up there and playsometimes until midnight.... This was around Hernando [Mississippi].
Finally R.L. took me out to a juke joint. That was a weird experience. We went way out in the woods. Back then a lot of the roads were like tunnels 'cause of the trees and the kudzu. We go to this big ol' house out in the woods and there was a bunch a people in there. We set up and start playing. We didn't play about 30 minutes and people were dancing and hollerin' and drinking and everything and R.L. says, "Brown you keep playing, I'm gonna go in the back and gamble some." I said, "Oh shit!" So he took off and I went to playing. And they were hollerin' "Play that thing white folks," and shit they were getting into it and dancin' and all. R.L., I don't know if he lost his money or won, but he came back in a little while and start back playing. He was just checking me out I guess, see if I was gonna make it.
You had never been to a juke joint before?
Were you singing at that point or just playing?
I think I had started singing by then.... Not much, but a little bit when I got my nerve up. I was real quiet back then. Still am unless I drink too much.
You're in the right profession.
Yeah, well I grew up around some professional drinkers, I did learn how to do that. Try to cut back on it lately.
So you played with R.L. on and off for a long time. Where did you play? Juke joints? Festivals?
We didn't ever do any festivals. I guess the first festival I did with R.L. was probably '94 or '95. But juke joints, picnics, we had a lot of those country picnics down there. They used to have those picnics right across the street from my house before Joe moved in when I was like five or six years old. I think R.L. even played there. Back then they didn't have so many telephones so the fife and drum bands, they'd get in the back of a pickup truck and ride all around the countryside playing so everybody would know there was a picnic. I got whippings 'cause I wouldn't come in the house. Mom would be tellin' me to come in, I'd be sittin' out there on the hill listenin' to the fife and drums stuff. And the guitars, probably Fred [McDowell] and R.L. A bunch of them probably played up there.
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But you were always turned on to the guitar?
Well I tried trumpet and drums, but guitar just felt right. It just happened. I guess I got a lot of influence growing up 'cause I was going to sleep with that fife and drum thing playing 'till four or five o'clock in the morning. And that's where a lot of R.L.'s rhythms come from is the fife and drums.
Yeah, we just played juke joints and stuff until probably '92. I was playing with Mojo Buford, a harmonica player who used to play with Muddy Waters. We'd done a tour and we ended it in Clarksdale and it was Muddy Waters' birthday or something, so we did a tribute to Muddy. I called R.L. and invited him down, and some of the guys from Fat Possum brought him down there, and sometime during the night me and R.L. just got up and did a couple songs ourselves. So when they decided to cut that Too Bad Jim, they asked me to play. When they first asked me I said, "What? He's best by himself." "Well, we want it to be a little different." I said, "Okay, I'll do it."
A little different how?
They wanted it to be more rock, or wilder or something, I don't know.... There was so much chaos goin' on around this playing thing. Back then I couldn't ever imagine it going as far as it has today. Git drunk and half the time someone's out of tune playin' the same song over and over for an hour. They request it, you know, play that "Goin' Down South" again. So we'd do it again and again.
So 1994's Too Bad Jim was the big turning point?
'93 actually was the year we did the recordings. I played on that Too Bad Jim with R.L. and then did one with Junior Kimbrough at the same time, same sessions. We recorded in Junior's juke joint. And then in '94 I think it was the first time that me and R.L. and Cedric [Burnside, R.L.'s drummer and grandson] went out. Cedric's father, Calvin Jackson, played on Too Bad Jim. But he had moved to Holland by the time we started going out touring. So Cedric started. He was about 15 I think.
Any problems with him in bars?
No, no. For years he wouldn't even drink a beer. You know I'd have to go to his school and get his two weeks worth of homework. Make him do his homework.
How was he as a drummer back then, 15 years old?
Oh, he was good. He's come a long way since then. I guess we all have. He'd been around it all of his life. He'd been trying to play ever since he was probably big enough to pick up a stick.
He told me he wanted to quit many times, but R.L. wouldn't let him.
Shit, he ain't ever wanted to quit. I mean, I guess we've all wanted to quit at one time or another, thought about it, but you don't keep those thoughts very long. After you git out there and make people feel good from playin', and get that energy thing, it's like a drug. You gotta have it. Yeah, he has a big time. He gets into what he's doin'. One night we were playing down in Florida and there was a mirror up on the wall beside Cedric, and I got to noticing Cedric playing fast as shit. I couldn't figure out what in the hell. I turned around and looked and he was just looking at himself playing in the mirror. [laughs] He's a self-taught drummer. I'm sure he learned things from his dad and different people, but most of it he's taught himself.
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What was Junior Kimbrough like?
Junior was a great cat. When I first met him sometime in the '80s Johnny Woods took me down. Me and Johnny used to stay out all weekend just riding and drinking and visiting different people, and we'd end up playing. We were out one weekend and he said, "Let's ride down here and see Junior Kimbrough." Junior had a house party. Way it got started was he started rehearsing with his band on Sunday afternoons. Shit, so many people got to coming that he started bootlegging and stuff and it got so packed you couldn't get in the room.
When I met him he was walking real good, getting around real good. Then he had a stroke. He had diabetes and his legs started givin' him trouble and he walked with a cane and stuff. Junior was a lot of fun to be around. I remember one night we were playing a gig in Oxford and he said, "Kenny, how long I gotta play?" I said, "An hour or two." He said, "Ah, man, an hour, I don't know if I can play that long." So we got up here and we did the first song, and we ended the first song and I looked at my watch and we'd been playing 30 minutes. When we ended the second song we'd been playing an hour. Junior was funny. It was like, he'd get kinda iffy about going out, like it was hard sometimes to git him out on the road. As soon as you got him to get in the van or the bus and leave home, he was great. Really good cat.... I loved Junior's stuff, I loved playing with him. I had no idea it was going to go as far as it has now. I never imagined it would. But I guess, back of your mind you always got hopes or dreams or somethin'.
A lot of people say R.L.'s Too Bad Jim is the best blues album of the past decade. Are you happy with it?
There are some things about that Too Bad Jim I would have liked to have had a little better, but [Fat Possum] led me to believe I was gonna get to do overdubs or redo some parts that didn't turn out just right. 'Cause those cats you know, they don't want to play a song over twice. They didn't let me overdub or fix the parts.
So no overdubs on those Fat Possum records?
No overdubs on any Fat Possum records that I know of. None of them that I've played on.
You're known best for playing in R.L.'s band, but tell us about the other band you recorded Goin' Back To Mississippi with.
I'm so busy with R.L. that I don't have time to do many gigs, but I call 'em together occasionally. Guitarist Dale Beavers got a day job, and Terrence Bishop, the bass player, he works as a stage hand in Memphis. Him and Bubba [J. Farrell Bonds], the drummer, are playing with a guythey got what they call a pop rock band.
I've played with different bands for quite a few years. A lot of times I put 'em together an hour before the gig. I'd be on the phone, "Man do you play bass?" I even picked a bass player out of the audience one time. One of R.L.'s sons was supposed to come and play, but it was this kind of redneck joint down in Mississippi, so I don't know if he got scared or what. He didn't show up. I had the bass rig and the amp and everything, and I saw this guy up there that I knew played guitar, and I said, "Man you play guitar don't ya?" He said, "Yep." I said, "Do you play bass?" He said, "Nah, but I've always wanted to." I slapped him on the back and said, "Tonight's your night, buddy." He said, "What do you mean?" I said, "Well my bass player didn't show up but I got everything you need." He said, "Man, I don't know if I can do it or not." I said, "Yeah you can. I'll pay you $50 too." "Alright," he said. He did it. He pulled it off.
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What are the songs you are particularly happy with off Goin' Back To Mississippi?
Well I like the way the originals turned out: "From Now On," "Back To Mississippi." I was happy with the whole thing really. I just hate that I haven't gotten a good deal. I finally got distribution in Australia and I'm doing a licensing deal in Europe. The States is the main thing though. I sell a few a week on average over the internet.
Seems like an opportune time.
Yeah, the time is right, you know. A lot of times these interviewers that don't know what's going on won't even talk to me. They be interviewing R.L."Oh you got your grandson playing with you." They never ask about the guitar player. Or they'll look right at me and never even ask me my name.
The album that broke you through to the younger generation was A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey that you and R.L. recorded with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, basically a punk group.
Yup. [laughs] Matthew [Johnson, Fat Possum founder] told me, "Y'all going up to do some shows with these guys. Here's one of their CDs. I went home and listened to their CD and I called Matthew and said, "Man you crazy?" Anyway, we got out there and went to doing it. It helped us because the crowds loved us and all. And me and R.L. got to doing their encores with them. We did two or three tours with them. Then one night we were somewhere stopped at a little store and some guy come up to the van and asked, "Hey you got 20 nickels I could have to git a bag of potato chips?" I said, "Man, git the fuck outta here." R.L. was sittin' behind me and says, "You better git the hell outta my face, or I'm gonna kick..." or whatever it is he says on that record. [laughs] So next night, we got to telling Jon and them about it, and he said, "Man we need to do a record like that."
So Matthew rented this big ol' hunting lodge outside of Holly Springs [Mississippi]. When we was doing those sessions that week, me and Cedric was standing out in the yard, it's way out in the national forest, way out in the boonies. Cedric said, "Kenny what is that?" I looked up and there was a big fuckin' wolf running across the yard, and I'm backin' up and I said, "Man, it's a wolf!" Anyway, we went in and did that shit with them and we recorded the whole thing I think in four hours.... It was kinda loud. At one point you can hear R.L. tellin' me to fix him a drink or something. We went in there and the guy that rented the place to us said don't use the fireplace 'cause the chimney is cracked. They had the chimney boarded up and no heat in the damn place and there was snow out on the ground and shit. I mean it was cold. I said, "Fuck this shit," and I tore the plywood off and built a fire in the son of a bitch. There wasn't nothing wrong with the fireplace.
Did Spencer go to Fat Possum and say he wanted to record the album?
Nah, Fat Possum wanted Spencer to do it with us to help us git out into their kind of crowd.
Is that R.L.'s biggest record?
Nah. You know we never got any royalties off that record. Fat Possum tells me that Matador says that we've only sold 500 records. But people tell me everywhere I go, "Hell we've sold that much here." But I think Come On In is gonna be our biggest one, if it's not already the biggest one.
Do you have a problem with the sort of obnoxious things Fat Possum tries with R.L., like the remix versions on Come On In?
Some of it's kind of annoying sometimes. When I first heard it I hated it. And then it got to selling so good about three or four months later I thought, "Well man, I better listen to this again." So I sat down one day with an open mind and I enjoyed it. I thought it was pretty good. I've had ideas for some of these same rhythms they came up with, choppin' it up like that. And when I heard it I was like, "Damn, how did they know what I was thinkin'?"
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So what's up in the future for the band?
I don't know what they got in mind. They're kinda secretive with me sometimes.
Well that brings up a good point, actually. Are Matthew and Bruce Watson [Fat Possum engineer] the guys driving the projectsthey come with the ideas and R.L. just kind of goes with it?
Yeah, if they write the right check or, you know, cash, he'll go right along with it. I read some review, some guy had written about that Come On In thing. They were acting like R.L. was in there with these cats remixing and all. He didn't have a clue what was going on.
Fat Possum press releases are such bullshit, incredibly misleading, putting R.L.'s name on some smartass quote that they clearly made up. I've heard R.L. talk, and he doesn't sound anything near like that. And the liner notes are pretty worthless, just all clowning.
Yeah. Most of the shit they write is lies ... Matthew comes up with some fucked-up ideas, some stupid ones, some good ones. I have to give him credit because he's helped us out a lot. I'm sure he's helped himself out too. Some of the shit I just won't do, don't want to. Like we're doing it live and he'll say, "Kenny, why don't you jump around some?" It's like, "Why?"
Dress up as a Hershey's Kiss?
Well I've been thinking about dressin' up as a black guy. [laughs] See what kinda of reviews we get at a show then"Is that your son playing guitar?"
They'll finally start talking to you, man.
I mean, a lot of people know what's going on. Me and R.L. and Cedric pretty much created the sound that we have now. Especially me and R.L. I can't give myself too much credit because I learned a lot from him and without his thing it wouldn't be the same, but without me being there it wouldn't be the same either. Probably as you know if you've seen shows when I wasn't there.
What are you listening to these days?
Well I listened to Johnny Shines today and some Guitar Slim. That's like real refreshing to me, Johnny Shines especially, 'cause I met him back years ago, got to see him play a couple times, really loved him and his voice. It's been so long since I listened to him, and his voice is so strong and all and his playing just so clean. So I'll be listening to that a lot I'm sure.
There's a guy who never got as much due as he deserved.
Nah, he sure didn't. I mean, he hoboed with Robert Johnson. But the blues in the last 10 years has just really gotten popularmore than it ever has been in my life. I think some of the stuff being tied in with the alternative has helped it, gotten the younger people buying it. I think, too, that people are just ready for the real thing. But for years you couldn't get any young black guys to play the blues. And not many white guys.
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We want you to cut another record.
Yeah, I'm goin' to. Hopefully this year I'll have maybe a couple of 'em done. Hopefully. I don't know, I could have made a mistake doing different styles on Goin' Back To Mississippi because somebody'll tell me it's too country, or it's too rock, that it ain't blues.
That's its strength.
Those people that tell me that, I don't need to talk to them anymore. [laughs] That's the way I look at it. I recorded with [producer] Dale Hawkins. You know he was one of the only white guys on Chess back when Muddy and Howlin' Wolf and all them cats were there. And he knows how to get the old sounds and stuff. I've written some songs with him that are out on some of his records. I'm gonna do some more songs sometime soon.
One thing I like about your record is that you don't get your hit for a month and then shelf it. That album really keeps growing on you.
That's good. I'm glad it turned out as good as it did. It was wild cuttin' it 'cause you know Hawkins is such a cat, man. We came in one day and Hawkins had every wire in the place pulled out"Man I was gettin a little noise. I had to clean this shit up." [laughs] So we'd go home for a week, go back. Same shit again.
Are you on the new Paul "Wine" Jones album?
Nah. Paul wanted me on it, but [Fat Possum] never called me when they were recording.
Is there some sort of bad blood between you and Fat Possum?
I don't know, man. They know that I don't agree with everything they do. And I have a lot of respect for all of these guys and I've heard the way they talk to some of 'em, and I just don't go along with it. And then, there's too much shit like Matthew or somebody telling me one thing and then R.L. and Cedric something else. Damn near every time we go on the road that happens. I don't want to talk bad about anybody in interviews and stuff. But it's like when I had the tape for [Goin' Back To Mississippi]. I didn't record for them, at their studio, and they didn't call the shots. Matthew always told me, "Anything you do let me have first shot at it." I said, "Okay." So I had the tapes together and I called him and said, "Look, wanna hear this stuff? I got it together." He said, "Yeah," and he was coming to Memphis and I said, "Okay let's meet and I'll get you a copy of the tape, and you can hear it, and if you like it, okay." He didn't meet me, didn't call or anything. So I said, "Well, that shows me what you think about that."