Fat Possum Records is an independent label based in Oxford, Mississippi. Started in 1992 by Matthew Johnson and Peter Redvers-Lee, the label began with one goal in mind – to release recordings from obscure blues musicians in the rural North Mississippi region.
Legend goes that after hearing R.L. Burnside play at one of Junior Kimbrough’s juke-joint parties, Johnson decided to start a record label and using money leftover from a student loan, signed Burnside to cut a record. Burnside’s good friend Junior Kimbrough was the next musician to join the label. This was juke-joint blues in the flesh.
From the outset Johnson had a clearly developed aesthetic in mind. He sought out musicians who embodied the true grit and raw spirit of the blues, claiming that many modern blues artists had become “too slick” and with records that were overproduced. Fat Possum would release records that captured the blues musicians in their natural state and authentically as possible. Following the label’s first release, R.L. Burnside’s Bad Luck City, former New York Times music critic Robert Palmer became interested and began his longtime involvement with the label. The Junior Kimbrough record All Night Long, produced by Palmer, garnered critical praise from Rolling Stone and other publications, providing the label with much needed exposure.
Although the label has diversified and grown over the years, including releases from modern bands such as The Black Keys and Dinosaur Jr., the label is still known for its Mississippi blues roots. Fat Possum has also begun reissuing records, including gems from Townes Van Zandt, T Rex, and Al Green, amongst a host of others. Fat Possum is heavily featured in two film documentaries: “Deep Blues” (1992) and “You See Me Laughin’” (2002).
Five LPs released by Fat Possum that you should hear…
#1: Junior Kimbrough, Sad Days, Lonely Nights
This recording of the legendary Mississippi blues musician Junior Kimbrough is dirty, raw, and downright mesmerizing. Born in Mississippi in 1930, for many years Kimbrough operated a famous juke-joint in Chulahoma, Mississippi called “Junior’s Place”. Sad Days, Lonely Nights was recorded at “Junior’s Place” in 1993. The album is a collection of swampy blues dirges featuring Kimbrough’s hypnotic guitar playing. This is a must-have record if you are into raw electric blues. You can hear Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, or even Ali Farka Toure, but the sound he developed is all his own. Although he played music all of his life, he didn’t release his first official recording until 1992 (on Fat Possum). If you want to hear the magic of Junior Kimbrough, this is the album.
#2: R.L. Burnside, First Recordings
This LP is a Fat Possum reissue of the complete recordings made by George Mitchell for Arhoolie records (Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bukka White, Big Joe Williams…). The recordings were made in 1968 and feature a solo R.L. Burnside with his guitar playing in his living room. Although Burnside recorded many original albums for Fat Possum, this LP stands out because of the old-school no-frills uncut performance captured onto tape. One listen and you will hear why Burnside is the real deal. This collection is a must-have for any acoustic blues fans. The guitar playing is hauntingly impressive and easily recalls Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin’ Hopkins. The sound is raw, but so is the playing. And that is exactly the point.
#3: The Walkmen, Lisbon
The sixth studio album from this NYC-based rock ‘n’ roll group is perhaps the bands finest. Kicking off with “Juveniles”, a song that is destined for mix-tapes and life soundtracks, the album finds the band crafting a raw-yet-controlled sound with confidence, patience, and true finesse. Most of the songs feature the band playing together with minimal instrumentation and the sound they capture is wide open and refreshing.
#4: The Black Keys, Rubber Factory
Rubber Factory (2004) is the third album from the Black Keys. Recorded to tape in an abandoned tire factory in Akron, Ohio, the sound is explosive and raw and hard-hitting. Riding the line between rock ‘n’ roll and the blues, this record reveals the essence of the Black Keys to be defined as a feeling and not just a genre blender.
#5: Youth Lagoon, The Year Of Hibernation
Quite the departure from Fat Possum’s roots, this debut album from Youth Lagoon (Trevor Powers), is a powerful collection of songs ranging from hushed intimacy to child-like conquering anthems. A heartfelt album filled with nostalgic melodies, sparse production, and wide-eyed introspection. If there ever was an album that epitomizes bedroom-pop, this might be it.