Cedric Burnside grew up in the 80’s a free spirit in the Mississippi Hill Country woods, not far from the town of Holly Springs. Free from fear. He was brought up by his mother, his grandmother and his “Big Daddy” grandfather, acclaimed bluesman R.L. Burnside, who took odd jobs on the neighbouring farms when he wasn’t on extended trips away playing music. Not so often in the 80s, but when Big Daddy teamed up with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in the early 90s, the heady mix of Hill Country Blues with R&B rock gave him a new audience and he achieved crossover fame, late in his life.
In the 50’s, R.L. had left Mississippi for Chicago, but after 2 years he came back home, afraid and uncomfortable with the knife edge environment. Within a year his father and two uncles were shot and killed. You can hear about that experience on R.L.Burnside’s 2000 release Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down. Cedric Burnside went to Chicago at the age of 13, playing the drums for his Big Daddy, and he too was scared... scared for the first time. But Big Daddy reassured him, just keep playing those drums boy, and you’ll be alright. And so he was.
25 years or so later, I’m talking to Cedric about his upcoming visit to Auckland, about his time with Big Daddy, about the blues in general, and Hill country blues in particular, about playing in Clarksdale, and about him looking forward to getting the Auckland audience to “shake a leg or two.”
Cedric is just across the Louisiana/Mississippi border in a small coastal town called Bay St Louis when I called him. He was due to go down to New Orleans the next day to play at the legendary Tipitina's. Then, he’s on his way down under, dropping into Auckland en route to Melbourne, Sydney and then to the Gold Coast to headline at Blues on Broadbeach, a mini Byron Bay festival which has been going on for 18 years and is ticketless, which means free! Memphis Tourism has supported the festival these past two years by bringing in up and coming local artists from Tennessee and Mississippi. Last year it was Southern Avenue, this year it is Cedric Burnside. And I see Tami Neilson is going this year. May 16-19. Check it out!
What brings Cedric Burnside to New Zealand?
His new record, Benton County Relic is actually what he is bringing to New Zealand; he’s looking forward to coming for the first time; and then he’s off to Australia, Blues on Broadbeach and then on to Europe. He’s happy to be busy.
So, Cedric, you are a child of the Mississippi Hill Country. Hill Country Blues. (Championed by the likes of Robert Belfour, Junior Kimbrough, Mississippi Fred McDowell and of course R.L. Burnside. Few chord changes, steady guitar riffs, driving beat, unconventional song structures, groovy, trance-like, hypnotic. Sit on the porch and watch the sun go down, shake-a-leg music) Can you describe Hill Country Blues?
“Well, it’s a bit like the Delta Blues but different. There’s no focus on the 1-4-5 chord progression that you get with most blues recordings. It’s different, unorthodox. Front porch music. Hypnotic, but in a good way. And I’m just happy to be carrying on in the tradition of my Big Daddy, who opened the door for the Burnside family. But I’m trying to make my own mark too”.
You are arguably the most prominent member of the Burnside family currently active. Do you feel an obligation or a sense of mission to keep the Burnside name alive along with the music?
It’s not a burden, not a weight, it’s part of who I am.
“It feels like it’s all I know. Right from being a young kid, listening in on the house parties, I knew right from the start that this is what I wanted to do, all my life. It’s not a burden, not a weight, it’s part of who I am. And I’m not the only one, several of my uncles are still playing. They just don’t travel as much as I do”.
When you were with Big Daddy, was he already famous, or was he newly famous, as he was to most of us who found him late in his life when his career experienced a resurgence?
“He was always famous to me. He didn’t travel so much, but when he did he would be away for 2 or 3 months, and we would look forward to him coming back. He’d always bring us little gifts, he was like a real Daddy to us. But I always loved the music, and I knew that that was what I wanted to do.”
We remember him as championing a sort of hybrid Chicago Blues and R&B, a little hip-hop and even grunge...
This puzzles Cedric at first, but then when he starts to talk about the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, I can qualify my statement to refer to that part of his career.
I was watching the latest documentary on Robert Johnson recently, which takes me back to the Delta, the Crossroads and Clarksdale, which I have visited a couple of times. The sociologist, Dr Brian Foster (from Ole Miss University in Oxford), lived down there for a while and came to the unsettling conclusion that the Blues Revival in Clarksdale (80% African-American) was regarded by the locals as “only for the white folks”. Tourism.
And when I go there, I am struck, not by the presence of, but the absence of the old blues guys. There aren’t even many young African American blues guys on the circuit. Does this indicate a generational crisis in the blues? Is the blues a dying genre?
Cedric is optimistic about the blues. He acknowledges that ten years or so ago, people weren’t playing that much, because it was hard to make money from the blues. But more recently, the younger folk have been learning about the history, about where they came from, and even the rappers are putting blues samples into their music.
He’s not being drawn into my direction, touching on racial issues, and the suspicion bordering on cynicism of some of the Clarksdale folk that the blues tourism phenomena is just about the money, the benefits from which do not trickle down into the black community. (check out Dr Brian Foster and his online lectures on the matter. And also get a read of his interview article in the Bitter Southerner all about Cedric)
So what can we expect from you in Auckland? Do you have a band with you?
“Just drums and guitar, like on the record” (that will be Brian Jay, not Cedric, on drums). “We’re gonna make some noise, have some fun, get people moving”.
So, that’s Cedric Burnside, nice guy, humble, passionate, having fun, making music...
Tickets available from Ticketmaster.