Blues still run the game
Shortly into the opening acoustic stanza of his summer visit to High Rock Outfitters, Cedric Burnside lifted his wine glass and recited just an infinitesimal fraction of the lore he’s absorbed over more than three decades next to the legends of the Hill Country: “Through my teeth and under my tongue, look out stomach because here it comes.” That toast, he said, he learned from the great Mississippi bluesman T-Model Ford, who had died only two weeks earlier at the time. As cheeky and base as it sounded, it’s the perfect remembrance of the late blooming, life-devouring Ford, whose libertine spin on the blues is but one of the influences that turns up in Burnside’s sound.
A drummer by essence as much by trade, he’s the grandson of the late, great RL Burnside and with Luther and Cody Dickinson, one of the standard bearers of Hill Country blues traditions, that ruder, roughneck cousin to Delta music. His duo, the Cedric Burnside Project, released its second album Hear Me When I Say in July, a collection of acoustic and electric tunes that sing of the vulgar pleasures and rugged hardships known best by those with real kinship to the blues. It’s his first since the untimely passing of his brother Cody in October 2012, and was thusl named in his honor, but by its very nature it’s also a tribute to the rapidly depleting national reserve of Hill Country and Delta elder statesmen.
CB: I try to write my music according to how I live my life, and what my friends and family go through. A big part of it though comes from being around those cats like “Honeyboy” Edwards and my big daddy, RL Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough. That taught me a lot at an early age. I started going on juke joint caravan tours when I was 13, 14 years old. I saw how they lived and the things they went through. Right now I’m crossing some of those same obstacles. I just thank God that I got a good head on my shoulders and I love this music enough to keep it going.
Y!W: 2011 must have been devastating with the loss of Pinetop Perkins, “Honeyboy” Edwards and Hubert Sumlin, and then Magic Slim and T-Model Ford this year. Save for Mose Allison, Big George Brock, BB King and James Cotton, almost all of the first guard of Mississippi blues have passed.
CB: The last great one will be Mr. Robert Belfour. He stayed in Memphis, but he’s a real great Hill Country player. I thank God for their experience and all the conversations and talks and jokes that we had. Before Mr. Hubert Sumlin and Mr. Honeyboy passed, I got the chance to do a tour with them, the Robert Johnson Tour with Big Head Todd & the Monsters. Just setting and talking to those cats, and jamming with those cats, it was like another 12 years of school — their jokes, and their stories, and the things that they’ve been through to get where they were. Hopefully, when I leave this world, people will think of me as one of those guys that was keeping that alive, Hill Country and Delta.
Y!W: As more contemporary influence creeps into the blues — I once saw a Hill Country Revue show where one of your uncles broke into a flow during an instrumental breakdown — do you feel you must maintain the base line, or are you inviting them in?
CB: I’ve been asked the question: How can I fill my granddad’s shoes? He was a great musician, vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter. I loved all of his music. When it comes down to my music, I’m so Hill Country and so old school just because I grew up around all of those cats, that I tend to walk like him, or talk like him, maybe even eat like him. When you hear my music, you can hear my granddad in my music because that’s all I was around all my life. Even though it’s new music, I like to call it the new Hill Country Blues. Every song I write, you’ll hear a little bit in there, because that’s where I come from and I’m damn sure going to keep it alive.
Y!W: Big George Brock talked about playing the True Blues in an interview once, that most players aren’t in touch with it. Do you believe such a thing exists or is it up to the creator to interpret what it is?
CB: I think it really exists and I would agree with that. There are players out there that write a song and it ain’t the truth. It just sounds like blues. If you’ve got the blues, you just can’t hide it. It’s just there. It’s something you’re born with, something you’ve been around your whole life. Some people out there, I do agree, write the songs because they want to have a blues song out. There are always going to be people that really don’t know what it’s about, they just like it.
Y!W: Your last Lexington show began acoustically, with country blues that were easy to settle into. Then you got behind the drum kit and it was like the top popped off a shaken soda bottle. Was playing drums your choice, or was it a necessary function of your grandfather being one of the most popular blues guitarists in the South?
CB: I started playing drums at a really young age; I was about 7, 8 years old. My granddad and uncles used to have house parties and jam out, drink moonshine. Just being there and watching them play, it was all I wanted to do was play those drums. Watching my dad play and wish I was on them… when they got to the break, I said, “Wow, man, I want to play.” Just building up the courage to get on them as a kid was important. It didn’t matter if I could play them. I had to break the ice just by getting on them. That was the first instrument that grabbed me, and I love them.
Y!W: Why was all the action on the drums in your mind, and not where your grandfather was sitting where all the attention would have been?
CB: It’s not that I didn’t like it; I love guitar and piano. I just love the sound they make and I love the deep funk beats you can get out of them. They just make me really happy, man. Then I started singing on the drums when I was 14 years old. My granddad had gotten ill and he had to take off about a month or so, and I started doing the thing with my uncle, Garry Burnside, Burnside Exploration. I’m not going to say it wasn’t hard as hell to sing and play the drums, because it was. We put ourselves in a little room for about three or four months and we came up with the Burnside Exploration CD. My uncle Garry’s voice just ain’t that great, and I always wrote songs and sang, I just hadn’t done it live until then. I had to figure out a way to sing, and do it over the drums. You got to have a pretty strong voice.
Y!W: Your new guitarist, Trenton Ayers, seems to bring a broader, more urban set of influences than Lightnin’ Malcolm.
CB: Trenton’s father, Joe Ayers, was one of the original bass players for the late, great Junior Kimbrough, so he’s got the blues in his blood. He’s been playing guitar since he was four or five years old. His biggest influence though is Jimi Hendrix. He loves some Jimi Hendrix.
Y!W: It’s really hard to imagine your sound as anything but drums and guitar, but have you ever tried the combo route?
CB: I’ve thought about a bass player, but I really don’t want a whole lot of people. Because I’ve been playing duo music for so long, that’s just my sound. I love the raw sound. Even when I go in the studio, I might have a few friends that want to help me on saxophone, or harmonica or keyboards. But when we play our show live, it’s going to be that stripped-down, raw, dirty Hill Country Blues.
Y!W: The title of your new record seems like a ubiquitous blues or gospel call, but to me it recalls a great song by Gary Moore called “The Blues is Alright,” where he says, “Hear me when I say that the blues is back and here to stay.”
CB: Hear Me When I Say actually came from my brother, Cody Burnside, who passed last October. He was known as the comedian of the family, and he always used to tell a joke or a story and start with, “Hear me when I say, now….”
WANNAgo? Cedric Burnside performs at High Rock Outfitters with the Shane Pruitt Band on Friday.