Grammy-nominated Bluesman Brings Burnside Style to the Double Decker Stage
Mississippi is the undisputed home of the Blues. Most people know of Robert Johnson, Son House, and the Delta Blues, but if you go a little further East, you run into what is known as the Hill Country, which is made up of Marshall, Panola, Tate, Tippah, and Lafayette counties. This is the birthplace of a country-tinged Blues style, pioneered and brought to the forefront by “Mississippi” Fred McDowell, a sharecropper from Memphis who settled into Como, Mississippi, in 1928 and began playing music around the small town in the early 40s.
In rural Panola County, near what is Sardis Lake today, a young boy of seven years named R.L. Burnside studied the older musician and his style of playing, sitting in with his band at house parties and picnics. Burnside would go on to be one of the most notable Hill Country musicians in the genre’s history, leading to Peter Redvers-Lee to found a record label, Fat Possum, in Lafayette County, in 1991 just to record Burnside. The patriarch of a musical dynasty through his sons Calvin, Duwayne, and Garry, and grandson Cedric Burnside, he taught the likes of legendary Blues guitarist Kenny Brown, cementing R.L. as a Blues legend around the world.
Carrying that torch and the still-beating heart of the Hill Country Blues, R.L.’s grandson Cedric will be bringing the Burnside sound to Oxford for the 24th Annual Double Decker Art/Music Festival.
Cedric, son of drummer Calvin Burnside and one of 35 grandchildren from “Big Daddy,” the family’s name for R.L., is an accomplished guitarist, singer, songwriter, and six-time winner of “Best Memphis Blues Drummer” (for which he was nominated seven times), as well as a two-time GRAMMY nominee for his albums Descendants of Hill Country and Benton County Relic. Cedric has performed with Jimmy Buffet, Widespread Panic, Kenny Brown, and of course his grandfather. I caught up with Cedric as he was preparing to head to Washington DC for a show to talk all things Blues.
How old were you when you first started getting interested in playing music?
Oh man. It was way, way early. We moved to Holly Springs when I was really young and I lived in the house with Big Daddy and most of my other family. There were so many other grandkids around, but not all of us had the interest in music. I did from as far back as I can remember. There were house parties every weekend, where everyone would gather and my Dad and Uncles would be playing with Big Daddy. Folks would come from all around and it would go for hours. There was food and we were all outside just having a great time. If it was raining, we were all in inside a little four room shack, where it would be tight, but there would always be room for the band!
With your father, Calvin, being a drummer, was it drums for you from the start?
It was. Seeing my Dad play the drums, I just thought it was so cool. The motions, the beats, just all of it. I was six or seven the first time I worked up the courage to ask him to sit behind his set and play. It was at one of our house parties of course and I just sat down and started playing. I had finally broken the ice and I was hooked.
Not long after that, you actually joined R.L.’s band for live shows, right?
That’s a great story! I was eight or nine when I really started playing with Big Daddy at parties and smaller gigs and full time. By 10 I was playing the Juke Joints with him, all over. When I hit 13, that was it and I was with him everywhere he played.
As a 13-year-old kid playing the Blues and touring with your Grandfather, did you honestly get what the music was about at that age?
Hell naw! I was born in the midst of it. I was surrounded by music and the Blues from the get go, but it never really hit me just how poor we were. It was just normal life for me to share a bedroom with four or five other kids and be in line for the bathroom. Sometimes we had running water, sometimes we didn’t. It wasn’t really until my teens and later years, when I started to actually have some money that I looked back and thought about it. When you’re living it, you don’t. I had friends who grew up in such a different lifestyle than I did, but it never made me envious. We had family, music, and a lot of love, which was enough
When you got older, did you ever think about branching off into another style of music that was a bit more accepted by the mainstream than Blues?
Never. I like all kinds of music from Rap to Rock, but it’s just not me. Hill Country Blues is. It’s how I was raised and how I live still. I love Mississippi and I have friends that will come to stay with me for a bit, just to see how we do things down here. It’s way more than music. It’s a heritage ya know? As a kid, Blues was just music and it became my life.
So how would you describe the difference between Delta Blues and Hill Country Blues for those who don’t know?
Delta Blues has that 1-4-5 . . . it has the changes and it’s great, don’t get me wrong, but Hill Country Blues is all about that one hypnotic rhythmic beat, just droning, almost hypnotizing you. It has a bit of a country kind of vibe in it, with the guitars, but it’s more of a structured sound than Delta Blues, which can change every time a song is performed. Times were just as tough here as they were in the Delta, but it was a gathering feel-good kind of music versus the pain of the Delta.
You have toured all over the world spreading the word of the Hill Country Blues. Does it ever amaze you that it’s been embraced in so many places that don’t have the culture that spawned the Blues in Mississippi?
People today have the Blues for a lot of different reasons, so it doesn’t shock me that much. I have been to Israel and drove by a crowd of people, out washing their clothes by a pond on a washboard and thought to myself “Oh yeah. I know that feeling,” so they know. There are so many different types of Blues out there that most anyone who has had a hard time, been poor or heartbroken, can find one to identify with.
As an African American playing a culturally Black music, has it ever upset you that the majority of those in attendance of your shows are White?
I used to wonder about that, I really did. I would just look out at the audience looking for a face like mine, and up until five or six years ago, I didn’t really have a lot of African Americans coming to the shows.
Why do you think that is?
I always thought that maybe Black people, in general, had enough of the Blues. They lived it. They lived through the times that gave birth to the music and maybe they just didn’t want to be reminded about the horrors of the past. Here recently though, I keep seeing more and more of those that do come are educated about the music. They have done their research and know the origins of where it comes from, and they have embraced it a significant part of our culture, which makes me happy to see a younger generation really starting to get it. They may not have lived it like a lot of us did, but they understand.
In 2006 you appeared in Craig Brewer’s film Black Snake Moan alongside Kenny Brown. How did that come about?
They wanted Big Daddy for that movie bad. Someone had shown Craig some footage of him and he was exactly what he was looking for. They didn’t know that he had passed the year before, but when they got in touch with Fat Possum Records, they suggested having me and Kenny, as we were his backing band, in his place and they loved the idea. It was a really a great experience getting to do that. Samuel L Jackson had thrown himself into that role, really learning the guitar to give it that true feeling.
How do you see the state of Blues music today?
It’s getting stronger and stronger! About 10 years ago I was worried about it. Blues had started to slip back into the background as more people really started to explore other kinds of music, but year after year, the culture of the Blues grows as more start to really grasp what it’s about it. We always have great crowds where ever we play and I am looking forward to playing to the home crowd at The Double Decker Fest in Oxford later this month!
Visit www.CedricBurnside.net to keep up with all things Cedric, and catch him at 1 pm Saturday, April 27 on the Double Decker stage.