Buyer's Guide: Fat Possum Records

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Fat Possum began life in 1991 in Water Valley, Mississippi. Masterminded by Matthew Johnson and Peter Redvers-Lee – who worked on the US magazine Living Blues – the label’s motto, “we’re trying our best”, underplayed a fervour for the blues few could match.

The label’s brief was simple: to record relatively unknown blues musicians in their local area of Holly Springs and Oxford, Mississippi. Johnson and Redvers- Lee defined blues as raw, tough and grimy, with touchstones being the boogie rhythms of John Lee Hooker and the hill country blues of Mississippi Fred McDowell. And with blues authority Robert Palmer on board as A&R man and sometime in-house producer, they struck creative gold from the off.

RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough were the first to join the roster. The former, from Holly Springs, had studied under McDowell, and after debuting for Fat Possum with 1992’s Bad Luck City, he remained at the label until his death in 2005, aged 78.

Like Burnside, Hudsonville’s Junior Kimbrough saw out his twilight years with the label too, recording three exceptional albums – 1992’s All Night Long, 1993’s Sad Days, Lonely Nights and 1997’s Most Things Haven’t Worked Out before he died aged 67 in 1998. The first of those albums, produced by Palmer, is engineered by Bruce Watson. Watson later replaced Redvers-Lee at Fat Possum as the label’s co-owner and today also helms the offshoot Big Legal Mess, and the Dial Back Sound studio in Water Valley. A slew of great albums by T-Model Ford, CeDell Davis, Little Freddie King, Asie Payton, Paul ‘Wine’ Jones et al followed, and a series of compilations titled Not The Same Old Blues Crap, which brought the label mainstream recognition.

In the 2000s, Fat Possum facilitated Solomon Burke’s career resurrection with 2002’s monumental Don’t Give Up On Me. They also provided a platform for the then unsung Black Keys, issuing their second and third albums Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory in 2003 and 2004 respectively.

When the wellspring of rural blues sadly dried up, Fat Possum adapted, expanding its remit. No longer a strictly blues label, with the likes of indie acts Spiritualized and Temples issuing albums on the label, it does now, though, deal with reissues, currently overseeing the Hi Records label back catalogue with impeccably packaged releases by Ann Peebles and Al Green, which are highly recommended.

ESSENTIAL

SOLOMON BURKE – DON’T GIVE UP ON ME

The rebirth of soul

Few make a career-best album in their sixties, but that’s just what Solomon Burke did with 2002’s Don’t Give Up On Me. Reconnecting Burke with his soulful, churchy roots, it placed him and soul music back on the frontline.

It wouldn’t have happened without Fat Possum’s involvement. They knew that soul music recorded by the greats could be critically and commercially successful if done the right way. And of course, they knew the right way. The project was actually the brainchild of Andy Kaulkin. Kaulkin – now the president of the Anti- label, patterned on Fat Possum – was back then employed by the label. Having seen Burke impress at a blues festival in Portland, Oregon, he placed the singer in Hollywood’s Sunset Sound Factory studio with like-minded producer Joe Henry and a set of songs written by Burke fans Tom Waits (Diamond In Your Mind), Bob Dylan (Stepchild), Elvis Costello (The Judgement), Van Morrison (Fast Train) Brian Wilson (Soul Searchin’) and Nick Lowe (The Other Side Of The Coin), using their names to pique the interest of the media. With just four days to complete the album, Burke was given the brief to sing live and capture the moment. With Daniel Lanois on guitar, Burke’s church organist Rudy Copeland and The Blind Boys Of Alabama on backing vocals, the songs were captured by the fourth take, and most by the first or second.

For all those big named songwriters involved, when the album was released, it was Solomon Burke who quite rightly garnered the attention. Giving the vocal performance of his life, his raw, expressive phrasing captured the full spectrum of emotion and provided a blueprint for subsequent back-to-the- source releases by Howard Tate, Mavis Staples, Bettye LaVette, Al Green and Gil Scott-Heron. Don’t Give Up On Me, meanwhile, won Burke the Grammy award for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

SUPERIOR

T-MODEL FORD – SHE AIN’T NONE OF YOUR’N

Minimal blues from the guitar- drone pioneer

Greenville, Mississippi’s Ford, born James Lewis Carter Ford, was a phenomenal talent who only got his due when Fat Possum came knocking. His sound, based around his raw, visceral guitar playing, is compelling and fully realised over his five albums for the label – 1997’s Pee-Wee Get My Gun, 1998’s You Better Keep Still, 2000’s She Ain’t None Of Your’n, 2002’s Bad Man and 2008’s Don’t Get Out Talkin’ It. She Ain’t None Of Your’n is the essential purchase of the five, capturing the excitement of the juke joint over 11 songs.

THE BLACK KEYS – THICKFREAKNESS

The commercial one

The duo framed blues with punk on their 2002 debut The Big Come Up for Alive. Their post-Fat Possum releases for Nonesuch place them in a rockier setting. But on their two albums for FP, plus the Chulahoma EP, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney pay their debt to hill country blues. 2003’s Thickfreakness, produced by Carney and recorded in his basement on an old eight-track in one 14-hour session, captures their supercharged energy with aplomb. The Hendrix-y single Set You Free and Have Love Will Travel, an explosive cover of Richard Berry, are the high points.

JUNIOR KIMBROUGH – ALL NIGHT LONG

The label blueprint

David Junior Kimbrough played guitar from an early age and taught rockabilly neighbour Charlie Feathers, but he didn’t release his first record until he was 62 – just six years later he was dead. In that time though, Junior Kimbrough issued a string of albums in quick succession. Each one has merit, but the cream of the crop is his 1992 inaugural offering. Recorded live to tape at Junior’s Place, Kimbrough’s juke joint in Chulahoma, it’s a genuine classic and deserved of a place in any Top 20 blues albums list of all time.

GOOD

RL BURNSIDE – TOO BAD JIM

The garage-rock blues prototype

Although he’d been recording sporadically since the late 60s, RL Burnside came to Fat Possum’s attention after starring in Robert Palmer’s 1990 documentary Deep Blues. His third album for the label, 1996’s A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey, was recorded with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and broke him with an indie audience. It’s that album’s predecessor Too Bad Jim from 1994, though, that provides a career best. Burnside was fond of recording at Junior’s Place and, produced by Palmer, this is quintessential Fat Possum: soulful, intense, trance-inducing.

VARIOUS – NOT THE SAME OLD BLUES CRAP II

The perfect introduction

All three volumes in the Not The Same Old Blues Crap series are fine label samplers comprising hard-driving blues delivered by men with a lifetime of experience. Sadly it is just blues men; there’s not a single woman signed to the label. But still the men do well, especially on the second collection, where the coup is the inclusion of the Kimbrough and Charlie Feathers collaboration, I Feel Good Again. The remaining 12 tracks, including Paul ‘Wine’ Jones’ Goin’ Back Home and I’m Gonna Leave, are pretty ace too.

AVOID

RL BURNSIDE – COME ON IN

One too may tag teams

Collaborating with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion had widened RL Burnside’s appeal. Working with Tom Rothrock and Beale Dabbs was intended to do the same. The result, 1998’s Come On In, though, was just plain awful, with Burnside’s expressive guitar playing and singing pinned to dreary techno beats and dance loops. Burnside’s collaborations with Kid Rock and Quannum’s Lyrics Born on 2004’s hip-hop- influenced A Bothered Mind were unfortunately ill-advised too.