If there were such a thing as a Mount Rushmore of the Hill Country blues, it might be located somewhere in between Senatobia and Holly Springs, Mississippi – the rich, fertile land that gave birth to what is now a world-famous sound.
The faces carved into the side of the landmark would probably look a lot like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Otha Turner and Jessie Mae Hemphill – all former originators and practitioners of the beloved genre.
As most blues lovers know, that foursome is no longer with us. It seems like in all of their cases, just as they were poised to really take the world by storm, their time was at hand. However, just because R.L., Junior, Otha and Jessie Mae are no longer playing their blues down here, that doesn’t mean that the Hill Country sound is also dead and buried. A new generation is helping to make sure the vibes of Tate and Marshall County, Mississippi are as alive and as vibrant as ever.
Names like Kinney and David Kimbrough; Sharde Thomas; Olga Wilhelmine Munding; and Duwayne and Garry Burnside are all working tirelessly to cultivate, promote and keep the Hill Country legacy growing.
Not to be forgotten among that roll-call is one of the most exciting and dynamic drummers to play the blues. Backing up his grandfather during the height of his late-90s success, he was always introduced thusly by R.L. – ‘Ladies and gentlemen, on the drums, my grandson … Mr. Cedric Burnside.’
“I come from a little town called Holly Springs, Mississippi and we’re known for the Hill County – instead of Delta – sound. My Big Daddy – R.L. Burnside – is a big part of why I am and where I am in the world today,” Cedric recently said. “I played drums behind him for a bunch of years. When I was 8- or 9-years-old, I started playing drums at the house parties they used to throw. By the time I was 10 or 11, I was playing in the juke joints. I just kind of looked and learned, you know, playing behind my Big Daddy and Mr. Junior Kimbrough.”
Cedric’s work on the drum kit is ultimately deeply rooted in the blues (he considers the late, great Jelly Roll King -Sam Carr – as one of his idols), but the way that he mixes influences of funk and hip-hop into his time keeping is really something to behold. There are drummers that lay back and groove and then there is Cedric Burnside, who pushes the song along like an out-of-control bulldozer, which is a wonderful thing. And although he does acknowledge his duty to help keep the Hill Country sound a current and relevant part of today’s roots music experience, Cedric says he does not feel any kind of pressure or burden to do so.
“I think about that all the time, but pressure? There’s no pressure. This is music that I grew up around and I feel that I am that music … all of it. I played with Mr. Otha Turner and I grew up around Mr. Junior Kimbrough, as well as my Big Daddy,” he said. “Their music is a part of me, even if I didn’t want it to be. It’s just a part of me and always will be. To try and fill their shoes is something that I would never do. It would be impossible to fill their shoes. But to keep the music going and to let people know that’s where we come from and that’s what we love, that’s the most beautiful thing of all.”
Cedric Burnside has come a long ways from those days when he and his Big Daddy, along with guitarist Kenny Brown, formed one of the baddest blues trios on the face of the earth. These days, Cedric and guitarist Trenton Ayers have been traveling the world, spreading the Hill County gospel as the Cedric Burnside Project. The first edition of the group started with his uncle Garry and his younger brother, Cody, who passed away three years ago.
“I’ve been knowing Trenton for a pretty good while – ever since he was about 4 or 5 years old. My Big Daddy and them used to throw house parties and Trenton’s dad, (Little) Joe Ayers, was one of the original bass players for Junior Kimbrough. So just like me, Trent had that in his blood. So he was always around,” said Cedric. “Before I developed the Cedric Burnside Project, I was with Lightnin’ Malcom for a good while, about six years. When we went our separate ways, it just happened that Trent was around, because his band (Electric Mudd) had just stopped touring on the road. He was playing bass for them and after they stopped touring and me and Malcom went our separate ways, I went to Trent’s house to pay him a visit and see how he was doing and what he had going on.”
That informal visit between two old friends ultimately spawned a new musical group and has issued two albums – Hear Me When I Say (2013) and Descendants Of Hill Country (2015).
“He (Ayers) just happened to be free, so we went to my house and practiced in the front room for a couple of months on songs that I had written that he hadn’t heard,” Cedric said. “And here we are today, man, we’re busting ’em wide-open.”
Once together, the Cedric Burnside Project spread like wildfire, going from playing informal gigs around Holly Springs to more exotic locales in New York, California and even Paris, France in 2015.
“It’s been good … been real busy. It started off a little slow at the beginning of the year, but we got a new booking agent by the name of Highway Key Touring and it’s going amazing, it’s been beautiful,” Cedric said.
Those that have seen the Cedric Burnside Project do its thing might have noticed that the group’s namesake has taken to moving from out behind the drums to the front of the stage from time to time, picking up a guitar instead of a set of sticks.
“I love to do it (play guitar) – it’s a whole lot of fun, playing guitar and writing songs. I would also like to let people know that hopefully before I leave this world, I’ll be able to play every instrument,” he said. “Three, four or five instruments, if I can. But I love guitar and I’m looking forward to expanding my guitar playing on down the road.”
Cedric may be selling himself a bit short by limiting himself to ‘three, four or five instruments.’ With his unique talents and the way that he can absorb music faster than a sponge soaks up water, there is no ends or limits to his ability to grasp musical theories. That’s one reason why he stops short of calling himself just a drummer or just a guitarist.
“I consider myself a musician. That’s just about it and I want to take that as far as I can,” he said. “I just love to play music – it’s my heart, my passion.”
Just like most forms of popular music, the blues is often times talked about – or labeled and explained – in sub-categories. A few include Chicago blues, Delta blues, Bentonia blues, and in the case of the kind that Cedric plays, the Hill Country blues. So what helps to separate the Hill Country sound from the rest?
“The Hill Country blues are unique. It’s totally unorthodox music. You can’t put it into 12 bars or 14 bars … I like to call it ‘feel music.’ What you feel is what you get,” he said. “Growing up with the Hill Country blues and playing behind my Big Daddy and Junior Kimbrough and Otha Turner, they seemed to have their own timing and their own style. It’s just a hypnotic, droning rhythm that people came to love. It’s a sound that became famous and I’m proud to keep it going. My beat became kind of famous and people enjoyed dancing to the rhythms. That’s kind of how I developed my style … just playing the Hill County blues up in the Hill Country for so long.”
The cats that young Cedric Burnside cut his teeth drumming behind did not use metronomes or any other kind of technology such as that. The stomping feet of the guitarist set the tone and time, and after that, it was up to the drummer to hang on and adapt to all the starts and stops on the fly. According to Cedric – who is a four-time Blues Music Award (BMA) winner for Best Instrumentalist – Drums – drumming behind R.L. and Junior was simply a case of watch and learn.
“That really comes from growing up where I come from. Growing up as a kid, I would listen to my Big Daddy do his music on the front porch, which I was a part of. Then I’d watch Junior Kimbrough in the juke joints – even when I was too young to be in there. Me and my uncle Garry Burnside were playing in juke joints when I was about 10 or 11 and he was 12 or 13,” Cedric said. “They had to hide us behind the beer cooler when the police would come in to check the juke joint. We were too young to be in there, but we were in the band. Being around all those cats … once you are around something long enough, you pick it up and get used to it. I think that’s what I did. I was around it so much that it became me. I got used to it and then it became second nature. It was like my oxygen.”
Had his grandfather not passed away back 10 years ago, there’s a good chance that Cedric would still be playing drums behind the legendary ‘Rule.’ However, he thinks that he would still have managed to start his own career, with his own name up on the marquee, by now, as well.
“I would probably be doing a little bit of both (playing solo and with R.L.). My Big Daddy, being the person that he was, he understood life and was a very kind and humble man. I think he understood that the older you get in your life, you have to advance and sometimes go your own way. I think if he was still living today and I decided to go my own way, I think he would be proud of me,” he said. “Also, he showed me just about every damn thing I know. The streets can consume us. I mean, you can be the most awesome musician out there and not go anywhere. Due to my Big Daddy, along with God, I was able to dodge those bullets in the street and I’m glad that I’m where I am today.”
In 2006 Cedric and his uncle Garry teamed up to form the Burnside Exploration. Three years after that, his pairing with Lightnin’ Malcom resulted in Two Man Wrecking Crew (Delta Groove), an album that nabbed Best Artist Debut at the 2009 BMAs.
The path has not always been smooth and easy for Cedric. Just like about every artist has to, he’s had to navigate his way through some tough spots along the way. But in the end, it’s the music that matters the most and that knowledge is always front and center for the 37-year-old.
“I did a lot of things that I didn’t want to do to get where I am today. I played with a lot of people that messed over me and I didn’t like that,” he said. “But you know, shit happens every day. You just have to find ways to get over it and hope that one day it will get better. In my case, I thank God that he helped me out of the ashes and now I’m on top and am going to try and stay there. If worse comes to worse, I’ll just play my music at home, because I love it so much. Nothing is going to stop me from playing it.”
Since he first picked up the drumsticks as a pre-teen, things have been in a state of forever moving forward for Cedric Burnside. He’s created an impressive resume at a relatively young age – especially for a bluesman. He’s not only led his own group and backed up the Burnsides, Kimbroughs and Turners, but he’s also played with everyone from Bernard Allison (the two cut an album together, last year’s Allison Burnside Express (Jazzhaus)) to Richard Johnston to Paul ‘Wine’ Jones to Jimmy Buffet. He also appeared on the big screen in a trio of movies – Black Snake Moan (the lead character in the film, played by Samuel L. Jackson, gives many nods to R.L. Burnside), Big Bad Love and Tempted. All those wonderful things aside, the thing that Cedric Burnside is most proud of – other than helping to keep his Big Daddy’s legacy alive and well – is how audiences many, many miles from Holly Springs have fallen in love with the music of the Cedric Burnside Project.
“I just got back from Israel a couple of months ago and I’ve been places all over the world, but I never would have thought I would have the chance to go over there. When I got to Israel, I really couldn’t believe that people over there were listening to my music,” he said. “I don’t know why that seemed strange to me, but of all the places I’ve been, Israel really made me feel good. I mean, I wasn’t playing with anybody else; it was the Cedric Burnside Project. My Big Daddy had taken me all over the world, but this was something that I did on my own, by keeping the music alive and not quitting. Being in Israel and watching people sing the songs I played, word-for-word, was a beautiful thing, man. I just thank God for everything, along with my Big Daddy – R.L. Burnside. One day, I’d like to be up there with him in the Blues Hall of Fame. I’m just loving it and I want to keep this thing going … I hope it gets bigger and bigger, every day, every year.”
Visit Cedric’s website at http://cedricburnside.net
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015