While musing on Kimbrough, T-Model and Burnside I’ve driven through Leland, where Jim Henson invented Kermit the Frog, that icon of the good natured swamp dwelling American; Indianola, birthplace of B.B. King and now home to the largest catfish processing company in the world, and Greenwood, where the Yazoo River runs through a town whose 19th Century brownstones glint in the morning sun. If memory serves me well then Robert Johnson was murdered somewhere outside of Greenwood. Take the 1-55 north and then the 32. The landscape has lost its extreme flatness and is now slipping, curving, finding some freedom in undulating motion. Even the colours of the land, the greens and browns, appear a little softer, not so washed out. Notice thick tangles of kudzu weed growing on both sides of the road and think, how the kudzu resembles crack cocaine, spreading forth across Mississippi with a slow, coiled intensity that no man can properly combat.
Pull into Water Valley, a spacious small town with neat bungalows, tidy lawns and a barricade of weary buildings yet to fall into the ruin that scours much of the South. Water Valley, I surmise, is a retirement town. Oddly enough, it’s also home to Fat Possum Records. Considering the label’s artists and marketing (T-Model Ford suggesting “I DON’T ALLOW NO MOTHERFUCKING PREACHERS AROUND MY GODDAM HOUSE” as poster and postcard is typical) you might expect Fat Possum to reside in some squalid backwater or in the Projects. But that would be overlooking Fat Possum’s birth in Oxford, the plush Mississippi university town, by Mathew Johnson, an Ole Miss student. The ranch house Fat Possum occupies sits directly opposite the police station so suggesting none of the crazed shenanigans Johnson once had a reputation for still go on. Indeed, the man who opens the door is so softly spoken I immediately calculate the press reports of his wild lifestyle were fictional creations. Fat Possum has seen its artists die at an amazingly fast rate – no surprise considering most were wrecked from a lifetime at the bottom of America’s social order – so is now trying to move into grungy punk rock.
‘Blues . . . there’s just not the interest there once was. When I first heard RL and Junior I could relate to those records and in a naïve way thought other people like me might also enjoy them. The greater black community tends to think of blues as Uncle Tom shit and the white blues fans – if there’s any left – are too set in their ways so I don’t think there is any future for it. We got Junior out of such an awful landscape and we’d take him to a blues festival and he’d be on the same bill as horrible shit like Little Feat and Jimmy Buffet. See, when Johnny Vincent was running Ace in Jackson and the Chess brothers were doing Chess in Chicago they were cutting popular music for the black community. The Chess philosophy was ‘cut it on Tuesday, press it on Thursday, sell it on Friday/Saturday, get the leftovers on Monday, melt ‘em down and start again’. Today the independent labels don’t count. We’re irrelevant, boutique labels. I wish we weren’t but that’s the truth. The script is written and we’re acting out the last scenes.’ Johnson then smiles and adds, ‘People have always been selling blues since the 1930s as “this is the last blues”. I say this and would say it even if I didn’t believe it.’
But Johnson, who’s kept Fat Possum alive through legal battles and distribution problems and all kinds of financial mess, is talking a certain truth here: once you could find blues players in every small Mississippi town. Now few black musicians genuinely play blues.
‘We signed this new guy Charles “Cadillac” Caldwell and we were real excited about him,’ says Johnson. ‘Trouble is, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died within a year of signing. Paul ‘Wine’ Jones died not long after RL. T-Model keeps on going. He’s incredible. But he lives in Greenville which is a fucking cess pit and he’s been robbed there. The 88-year old white woman who was teaching him to read and write was raped and murdered two years ago. We’ve tried to get him out but he refuses to leave. Johnny Farmer won’t cut any more blues for us. Says it’s the devil’s music and whoever sings it will burn in hell. Blues is doomed. Who needs another version of Sweet Home Chicago? Music has to change. Fat Possum caught the last of what sprung from Mississippi a long time ago. It’s all over now.’
The only new blues releases Fat Possum now issue are Mississippi folklorist George Mitchell’s recordings from the 1960s/70s; these include Burnside’s first recordings, 1920’s pioneer Furry Lewis’s comeback efforts after decades of obscurity spent sweeping Memphis’ streets, and artists who remain almost unknown beyond friends and families in the tiny hamlets, places often without running water and electricity and sewerage, that they lived and died in. Perhaps by issuing Mitchell’s recordings Fat Possum could be seen as paying tribute to their origins and saying goodbye to the world of Mississippi blues. Not that Johnson considers it as such.
‘I know a lot of people think I’m an asshole ‘cos I market blues as rough music – B.B. King’s always saying “I hate it that people think because I play the blues I beat my wife” but, and I’m sorry B.B., our guys are pretty crazy people!’ Johnson laughs at this then adds, ‘I mean, Junior and RL lived really rough lives. T-Model might be a psycho but he’s a very likeable psycho.’
READ THE COMPLETE FAT POSSUM INTERVIEW IN MORE MILES THAN MONEY