Because bluesman R. L. Burnside hails from a small town in north Mississippi, a lot of listeners automatically assume that his music is an example of the Delta blues -- the legendary strain that produced Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Elmore James.
This doesn't really bother Burnside -- "I kind of feel like the blues is just the blues, you know?" he says, good-naturedly -- but he does try to put people straight on the subject. "This country hill blues," he explains over the phone from his home near Holly Springs, Miss. "You don't have to live in the Delta to play the blues."
Neither do the country blues Burnside perpetuates sound much like the Delta variety. As critic Robert Palmer put it in the film VTC "Deep Blues," music in the Mississippi hill country "hasn't changed as much as the music in the Delta. It's really stayed very much the same for generation after generation."
Burnside is a perfect example of how that north Mississippi sound has been preserved. A self-taught guitarist, he learned the blues in much the same way his idols did -- by listening and observing.
"I watched other people, that's how I learned," he says. "I watched Fred McDowell in his lifetime and a lot of them guys like Muddy Waters, those guys.
"I tried a harmonica and stuff, and I played picnic drums, I do that, too. But I like the guitar better."
No wonder. Burnside is among the bluesmen featured in "Deep Blues," and anyone who has seen the film or heard the soundtrack album undoubtedly remembers Burnside's churning, hypnotic rendition of "Jumper on the Line." It's a solo performance, just voice and guitar, but there's no mistaking the deep, trance-like pulse.
Palmer describes Burnside's style as "slash-and-drone," and rightly so, since Burnside generates more groove with his unaccompanied strum than many drums-and-bass rhythm sections do. Hearing him in this context (which is how he'll be performing at the Walters on Saturday), he seems like the sort of performer who'd have no need whatsoever for a band.
As it turns out, though, Burnside does have a band -- a group called the Sound Machine, consisting of his sons and son-in-law.
"They like the blues," he says of his children. "We do some ourselves that we make up, and we do some by other people -- just change the lyrics on it or something on it."
At the moment, Burnside is working on material for his next album, a studio session to be produced by Palmer.
Writing a blues song, he says, is in many ways more challenging than learning how to play the blues.
"It's kind of hard," he says. "Let's say you'd be sitting around, and things come to you, and you just try 'em and see what it sounds like. And you keep doing it till you get it to where you would like it.
"But that's kind of hard to learn," he adds. "It takes me a good while to get it."
R. L. Burnside
When: Saturday at 8 p.m.
Where: Walters Art Gallery.
Tickets: $10, $8 for Baltimore Folk Music Society members, $5 for children under 12.
Call: (410) 366-0808 for information.