Chris Nashawaty
September 09, 2005 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Singer-guitarist R.L. Burnside, who died from heart failure on Sept. 1 in Memphis at age 78, played a pivotal role in the blues resurgence of the ’90s with his genre-busting forays into alt-rock and rap. Yet he found success only after a lifetime of struggle: Born in Mississippi, he toiled for decades as a sharecropper and fisherman, and his life was scarred by violence (several relatives — including his father — were murdered, and Burnside served six months for killing a man). He gained some renown in Europe, but mostly played juke joints until 1991, when he was the first artist signed to Fat Possum. It was the gutbucket hill-country blues of 1994’s Too Bad Jim, produced by music critic Robert Palmer, that won indie-rock fans like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who teamed with him on 1996’s rowdy A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. A hip-hop-infused follow-up, 1998’s Come On In, landed two tracks on The Sopranos. In addition to his legacy (20-plus albums), Burnside left behind his wife of 56 years and 12 children, some of them musicians. ”He opened people’s eyes that [the blues] is a very vibrant music,” says Spencer. ”I think R.L. really blew some minds.”

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