Robert Palmer Mines the Deep Blues

Producer-Author Teams with Fat Possum Label to Record a Living Tradition

By Bradley Bambarger <1995>

OXFORD, Miss. — Paul Jones, Big Jack Johnson and Sam Carr are a mite slow getting going this morning. Maalox and cough drops are now the order of the day, so the beers won’t be cracked open until at least around noon. But even though the fifty-something musicians are brewing slowly, the blues is in ’em and it’s got to come out.

Music journalist and producer Robert Palmer, author of the seminal study Deep Blues, knows as much as anyone alive the subtleties of capturing the primal, powerful sounds of the blues. Channeled via a community tradition a hundred years old, the music is mystical, and its makers are true griots — not to be hurried or fussed with. The bywords for these sessions are patience and trust.

“The best thing is to let ’em get going and stay out of the way,” Palmer says. “We just let them play, run a lot of tape, and pick the hot performances later. I’ve had experience with country-blues artists in the studio before and having them freeze up because that scene is just not what they’re about.”

“We’re trying to cop a whole atmosphere,” adds Robbie Norris, Palmer’s engineering partner. “If we try to be too ‘studio,’ we’re going to lose it. So we’re not out there adjusting mics all the time. We just make it work with what we’ve got.”

Palmer and Norris are in Oxford working on a spate of future releases for the Fat Possum label based here. Over the past few years with Norris, Palmer has helped craft for the label such indispensable records of living blues as Junior Kimbrough’s Sad Days, Lonely Nights and R.L. Burnside’s Too Bad Jim. Kimbrough and Burnside — spiritual-sonic descendants of such Mississippi icons as John Lee Hooker — recorded their initial albums of raw, rural electric-trance blues at Kimbrough’s juke joint near Holly Springs, Miss. It’s a venue steeped in atmosphere but not exactly conducive to high-end pro audio.

“At Junior’s, someone’s always screaming or talking over in the corner, which I guess is cool in a way,” Palmer says. “But the floor is concrete, too. Really, anything good sound-wise about those records is more thanks to Robbie than to the quality of the room.”

The current sessions are being conducted at the bare-bones Jimmy’s Auto Care studio near downtown Oxford. The advantage of Jimmy’s is that while it’s still funky, it lacks the nightlife anarchy of Kimbrough’s juke joint. Everybody concerned can concentrate here and get down to business. Burnside, for one, uses the studio as a home away from home a few days a week for rehearsing and writing. “With 13 kids, there can be a lot of distractions,” points out Bruce Watson, owner of Jimmy’s Auto Care and a producer/engineer of several Fat Possum releases. “R.L. won’t be bothered here.”

The session at hand is for Paul Jones, a singer and guitarist. Guitarist Big Jack Johnson and drummer Sam Carr, who are accompanying, played together as part of the Jelly Roll Kings in years past, while Carr and Jones have also worked together live. But Johnson’s six-string adds a bold new element to Jones’ country blues, and on the first tentative take of “Digging My Potatoes” things don’t seem to gel quite to everyone’s satisfaction. Palmer gently suggests a second take — and after playback of both, everyone agrees that the second, more aggressive version is best. With that, Johnson turns to slide guitar for Jones’ “Kitty Cat,” and the session begins to rock.

The down-and-dirty recording setup of Jimmy’s Auto Care suits the essence of this music, and Palmer and Norris will work long days to record a year’s worth of Fat Possum releases in two or three weeks. Norris is tracking the sessions live through a Mackie 1604 console onto two linked Alesis ADATs.

“Of course, I’d love to record this with a Studer 800 through a Neve board in a remote truck outside,” Norris says, “but the budgets for these albums don’t allow those kinds of luxuries. We spend less on all these records than what a major label spends on one dance remix.”

Norris and Palmer will mix the tapes this spring at Quad Recording in New York City, where Norris is chief engineer. It’s in the mixing stage where most of the emphasis on sonic aesthetics takes place, according to Norris, who uses compression, equalizers and various filters to help create a sonic image of depth and relative clarity. “It really is one of those ‘fix it in the mix’ sort of things,” he says.

All the Palmer/Norris productions for Fat Possum have been mixed in a day or two. The only exception has been unorthodox slide guitarist CeDell Davis’ first album, Feel Like Doin’ Something Wrong, which took longer because of his idiosyncratic tunings and strange tonalities. “Getting that weird guitar sound to work took a lot of effort, plus we had so many options,” Palmer explains. “We had him going through two amps in two different rooms at the same time. We had a direct guitar track, too, and we had a mic trying to capture the hum of the windows from the guitar tones.”

Feel Like Doin’ Something Wrong will be reissued this spring as part of Fat Possum’s new partnership with Capricorn Records. Several of Fat Possum’s other early ’90s recordings — including Sad Days, Lonely Nights and Too Bad Jim — are already back in stores via Capricorn. The albums Palmer and Norris are recording now should start rolling out with the summer. One of these records will feature 24-year-old guitarist David Thompson’s band, which was in Jimmy’s Auto Care cutting its first Fat Possum album days before the Jones session. According to Palmer, Thompson is part of a generation of young Mississippi musicians who combine the regional blues tradition with more modern rhythmic influences, such as soul and funk.

Other sessions during this go-around will include more group work with Burnside. The design for these, Palmer says, will center on giving further electric ensemble context to Burnside’s country blues, following the lead of Leonard Chess’s revolutionary work with the bands of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Also, CeDell Davis will be recorded solo, in some instances with his otherworldly guitar style mutated through various effects. “I played with CeDell in a juke joint once, and he played the whole night through a phase shifter,” Palmer recalls. “It was wild. I guarantee you’ve never heard anything like that.”

Such melding of tradition with experimentation is what keeps the blues exciting and on the edge, Palmer insists. And, he adds, the work of a Davis, Burnside or Kimbrough has the appeal of any sublimely untamed music. “The sound is so slashing and chaotic that a lot of this stuff is really sort of punk rock,” Palmer says. “The records we make might almost get over more to the kids who are into abrasive, dissonant guitar bands than they would to the typical blues fan.”

(This article was originally published in the March 11, 1995 issue of Billboard magazine. Author, critic and producer Robert Palmer died in 1997 at age 52.)

Two essential books by Robert Palmer…

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