So far, the 21st century has been a real roller-coaster ride for Fat Possum Records. During the past couple of years, the Water Valley, Mississippi-based blues label -- some 60 releases strong -- has lost its biggest stars, signed yet another distribution deal, and scored big with a white blues-rock duo.
"First of all, the 2003 'Year of the Blues' campaign did nothing for us -- not even a blip," label co-founder Matthew Johnson says. "The PBS series [Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues] wasn't any good. We weren't even in it. The offer we had was so insulting," he continues, noting that Memphis bluesman Robert Belfour, a mainstay on the Fat Possum roster, was offered $500 for four-and-a-half minutes of videotaped performance and two songs. "What a horrible, insulting racket," Johnson says. "In fact, we made The New York Times by not participating in it."
Johnson's sentiments are nothing new. Since its inception in the early 1990s, Fat Possum has made its reputation through controversy. The label first upset blues purists with its radical marketing concepts, which have included coarse caricatures of its artists on record covers and remixing classic sides into dance tracks. "There's Fat Possum Records and everything else sucks," went one memorable ad campaign.
There were also several casualties along the way. Label co-founder (and producer of those seminal early releases) Robert Palmer died in 1997, and after a disagreement over a manufacturing and distribution deal with Capricorn Records ended up in federal court, Fat Possum nearly went belly-up. But nothing, it seems, has shaken Johnson more than the death of hill-country bluesman Junior Kimbrough and the subsequent retirement of Kimbrough's notorious cohort, 77-year-old guitarist R.L. Burnside.
"R.L. left a fucking hole in the operation, period," Johnson laments. "Socially, morally, economically, nothing's been the same since he retired. Of course, he's not dead. He's such a trooper that I could probably pressure him to tour, but I don't want to go there. There's a lot on his plate, stuff that would kill 10 normal men." Johnson cites Burnside's large and often fraught with trouble family as a constant hardship. "Kenny [Brown, Burnside's onetime rhythm guitarist] and Cedric [Burnside, R.L.'s grandson and Brown's drummer] always say, 'I wish I had his money, but I'm glad I don't have his life!'"
Burnside's retirement was prompted by health issues: specifically, a recurring earache and heart problems. Recently, however, the famed player has ventured into the Fat Possum studio for some low-key session work. "We're doing another remix record," Johnson says, noting that Kid Rock and indie rapper Lyrics Born have both signed on to produce individual tracks.
Later this year, Fat Possum will also revisit Kimbrough's vast catalog, when Johnson releases a tribute record to the late musician. "We've got the usual suspects slated to participate, like the Black Keys," he says, "and bands like the Fiery Furnaces and hopefully the Reigning Sound. Then Iggy and the Stooges are gonna do 'You Better Run.'" Iggy Pop has been an aficionado of the bluesman for years. He invited Kimbrough to open for him on a series of dates in 1996.
While Kimbrough and Burnside were undoubtedly the most popular artists on the Fat Possum roster, plenty more artists on the label have remained active over the last decade. Greenville, Mississippi, guitar-and-drum duo T-Model Ford and Spam are still plugging away in the studio and on the road, while younger musicians like Robert Belfour and Kenny Brown continue to carry the hill-country blues torch to the outside world. Then, a few years ago, Johnson discovered guitarist Charles Caldwell in Coffeeville, Mississippi, just 10 miles from the label's office.
"Charles was a lot like R.L. He had so much charm, and he was always up for anything," Johnson says of the 60-year-old bluesman who succumbed to cancer last September, mere months after recording his Fat Possum debut. "It's like the Fat Possum clichÇ that he died," Johnson says, sighing.
The label has had better luck with the Black Keys, "two kids from Akron, Ohio," Johnson explains. "They're really kicking butt -- thickfreakness is still selling 1,000 records a week. Dan [Auerbach, the band's guitarist] is obsessed with the blues. He used to make his dad drive him down to Mississippi when he was 16. Sure," Johnson admits, "there's some irony in the fact that the biggest act on our label is a white band." But, he insists, "it's good irony, because we signed 'em!"
In 2002, Fat Possum released Solomon Burke's Grammy-winning comeback album, Don't Give Up On Me. "We came on at the right time. That record made itself," Johnson says of the project, which was facilitated by Andy Kaulkin of Epitaph Records which, until recently, was the exclusive distributor of Fat Possum product. "But Solomon won a Grammy, and we almost lost our deal with Epitaph," Johnson adds. "Where do you go from there?"
Fat Possum negotiated a new distribution deal with Rykodisc, which is currently handling the label's more esoteric offerings, including albums mined from musicologist George Mitchell's field recordings, which Johnson purchased in 2002. For now, Epitaph continues to sell Fat Possum's bestsellers, including Burke's album, the Black Keys' CD, and a new release from Grandpaboy, the bluesy alter-ego of former Replacement Paul Westerberg.
"Epitaph has had a change of heart," Johnson says. "Hopefully, we'll be disentangled from them soon."
Johnson brightens when he mentions other upcoming releases, including an obscurity by the late Georgia guitarist Jimmy Lee Williams, culled from the George Mitchell archives, and a brand-new recording by New Orleans' Little Freddie King.
"We signed another rock band from Ohio called Thee Shams and I'm really excited about cutting a new album with Nathaniel Mayer. When he's on, he's really on," Johnson says of the husky-voiced Detroit R&B singer, who will enter the Fat Possum studio in late February.
"We still have a little cachet, maybe," Johnson says of his label, which, despite the constant turmoil, seems to stay right on track. "Coming to work is like going down the rabbit hole every morning. Our survival is a real triumph."
The Fat Possum Juke Joint Caravan
With T-Model Ford & Spam, Kenny Brown &
Cedric Burnside, and Paul "Wine" Jones
Friday, January 23rd The Hi-Tone CafÇ 278-8663