The late R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough—guitarists, vocalists and composers—remain legendary as master purveyors of “hill country” blues, a style specific to north Mississippi, particularly in the area around the town of Holly Springs.
Remarkably, their respective, very talented grandsons, Cedric Burnside and Trenton Ayers, continue their legacy as the Cedric Burnside Project. “I think that’s a blessing,” says drummer, vocalist and sometime guitarist Burnside, who at age 13 was already behind the drums and on the road with his grandfather, R.L., who he affectionately calls “Big Daddy.” “I was born on the road and I’m still on it,” Cedric, 38, says with a laugh. It happens that his mother was traveling with her father, R.L., when they were forced to stop in Memphis for Cedric’s arrival.
The Cedric Burnside Project, which performs at the Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival on Sunday, October 16, received a Grammy nomination for its very appropriately titled 2015 album, Descendants of Hill Country. “It was a collaboration between me, my uncle Garry [R.L.’s son, guitarist Garry Burnside] and [guitarist] Trenton,” Cedric explains. “We three came together and wanted to do something for the hill country and to sort of let people know where we are coming from and who we got it from.”
A duo of just drums, guitar and vocals remains common to the genre, though unusual on today’s music scene. As put forth by this team, the stripped-down instrumentation certainly doesn’t result in any lack of dynamics or muscularity. “It’s very unorthodox, I know that,” Burnside agrees. “I’d have to say, not everybody gets it though lots of people who have come and heard us for the first time left amazed. We see a lot of those people when we go back the next time.”
“In Europe, they really love it. Even the ones who don’t speak English, they dance to the music like they’ve been listening to it their whole lives. I guess it’s that hypnotic beat—that hypnotic drone that hill country blues gives out. Hill country blues is very raw and very real. Big Daddy was a sharecropper. He was that guy who would get off the tractor when somebody comes to see him to play guitar because that’s what you love to do. When people start feeling that energy, they can kind of relate to where he was coming from.”
A night with the Cedric Burnside Project naturally includes material from both R.L. and Junior Kimbrough—tunes that Cedric and Trenton, 30, both grew up hearing and playing. The drummer and guitarist also delve into songs from Descendants of Hill Country and, says Cedric, go back to selections from 2013’s Hear Me When I Say, the first album they recorded together. The two have known each other since childhood and decades ago would play at the many jam sessions R.L. would host at his home in Holly Springs.
“He plays Junior, yeah, but I think all of Trent’s music is his own style—he puts his own little thing to it,” says Burnside. “He can play just about anything of Junior’s or Big Daddy’s or other musicians. He plays regular guitar and slide with open tuning, which is open G. A lot of older cats around the hill country used to call it ‘Spanish’ tuning.”
Burnside and Ayers both perpetuate the hill country blues of those who came before them—as well as modernize it. “It’s updated and the reason is because we’re the newer generation—we’re descendants. We kind of do it our way—call it a younger way if you want—but we also keep it raw like how we got it. It’s also a bit more uptempo.”
“My music is closer to Big Daddy’s music than anybody else,” Burnside continues. “It’s because I was around him my whole life. Anything he would do from walking to cooking, I would sit there and watch him. I just grabbed what I could and tried to perfect it.”
Burnside sees a lot of musicians getting hip to hill country blues and playing more of his grandfather’s and Kimbrough’s songs. With its driving rhythm and played-from-the-gut, juke joint attitude, the genre is not easy to pull off with authenticity.
“You can’t read this music,” Burnside makes clear. “I like to call it feel music—you have to feel it and go with the flow. A lot of the old cats back in the day—and even now—they tend to change [chords] when they’re ready. You just have to be ready.”
“I was quite young the first time I came to New Orleans, maybe 17, and I played with Big Daddy at Tipitina’s. A few years later, we did the Ponderosa Stomp. New Orleans is like my second home. That city always shows us love. Man, y’all can cut a rug. Other places I have to tell the people that we love for people to dance. I never have to tell people in New Orleans or Mississippi to dance because they’re already going to be on the floor.”
Cedric Burnside smiles a lot as he lays down hill country’s intensely compelling rhythm. “I can’t play too good if I can’t enjoy it.”