Exploring the Hill Country sound…Cedric Burnside is part of a lineage.
The guitarist first went on the road when he barely out of short trousers, performing alongside his grandfather RL Burnside, a pre-eminent practitioner of the Hill Country Blues sound.
The dense, profoundly rhythmic Mississippi variant was distilled across a number of decades, with artists such as Junior Kimbrough – who Cedric knew from childhood – helping to develop it.
At one point, the Hill Country sound was capable of reaching the upper echelons of the music sphere – the Rolling Stones dropped by the local juke-joint, while U2 lauded those musicians in interviews.
Right now, it seems as though people are turning back towards the blues. Times are tough, and with the Black Keys’ latest stripped-back opus leafing through the Hill Country songbook, it’s clear there’s something about this form of music – heavily minimalist, soaked in tradition – that touches listeners deeply.
Cedric Burnside is doing his bit to keep the flame alive, and his excellent new album ‘I Be Trying’ offers his own blend of Hill Country influence.
Clash caught up with the guitarist to discuss his roots, the making of this electrifying album, and why the blues will never die.
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Congratulations on the new record!
Thank you so much, man. Thank you! I’m glad that the good Lord and the universe worked along with me.
This will be an entry point in that Hill Country sound for a lot of people – what is it that makes that sound so distinct?
Well, I have to say, Mississippi Hill Country blues – to me – it’s the unorthodox rhythm style of the music. It don’t really go by the book or anything like that, it’s just kind of got a mind of its own. And that’s how the older cats round this way, that I learned the notes from, that’s how they always did it. They just did whatever comes into their heart, y’know? And it was always unorthodox.
You started playing with your grandad when you were 13, is that right?
I did. I did my first tour with him when I was 13. We drove from Mississippi up to Toronto, Canada.
That must have been eye-opening!
Oh, wow, man! It really was. I was a nervous 13 year old. Even though I loved the music, and I could play the music, I had never been anywhere besides Mississippi playing the music. At the juke-joints and house parties. So, it was quite something to go to a whole other country and play music for people I’d never seen before in my life, and I didn’t really know how they’ve accept it at that time. It was quite an experience.
Does that juke-joint culture still exist?
I have to say that they have faded away, man. Unfortunately, they’ve all faded away. There are a few still around. There’s not many too much more here in the Hill Country. Hopefully I can say that sometime here pretty soon I’ve been thinking about opening up my own juke-joint around here, just to bring that back. I miss it and a lot of people around here miss it.
A juke-joint was a place where people could come and have fun and forget all their cares and worries and come and enjoy the music, enjoy the moment. A juke-joint was something like that – it’s where you made it. A lot people threw house parties in their front yard, or their back yard. And they found a way to make people happy. Inviting neighbours and friends from around the way.
You got into this music through your family – is that what keeps that Hill Country sound going, those tight connections?
Oh yeah, man. Definitely. Most definitely.
‘I Be Trying’ is a great listen – when you’re approaching writing new songs, how do you find the balance between your heritage, and something that’s taking it forward?
Hill Country will always be in my heart. It’s where I’m from. It’s all I was around as a kid. I feel like I am Hill Country, I’m a part of that Hill Country sound. It’ll always be there. But another part of me is looking to today – not only did I go through things in the past, but I also go through stuff in the present. And I’m sure going to go through stuff in the future as well. And that’s something that people can relate to because we always go to go through things as we evolve and go forwards.
I write my music according to what I go through in life, and what my family go through, my friends as well. I try to see if through their eyes, as well. That’s how I come up with my music – I think of things that’s going on, and things that I have been through… and I go from there. Some of those times are fun times, and some of them are… pretty messed up times! Either way, I bring it out and somebody can relate to it, either way.
Were the sessions quite structured, or was there a certain amount of freedom?
I had written most of the songs before I went in the studio. And that’s kind of how I like to do it. I like to do it like that all the time. I had written about six or seven songs – of the 13 – before I went in the studio. And the rest I wrote a little before I went into the studio. Some I wrote much before, and a few that I wrote two or three days before. And just kind of put music to ‘em and made ‘em sound like I want ‘em to sound. And invited the people that I really wanted to play on the album to join me. And it turned out great!
I’ve known the people at the studio since I was 15 years old – we’d always spoken about doing something together, but we’d never really had the chance. We’d been busy ‘n’ all! I’m glad we found the time. COVID was good and bad, I guess – we finally got the time to go into the studio and do our thing. I’m glad it came out really well, man. Thank the universe!
The production is great – it feels like a live recording, in some ways.
Some of it was. About four or five were live takes – we did it right there in one big room. We did a lot of it in one takes, and some of it was had to do two, three times before we became comfortable with ‘em. But the whole album was recorded in three days.
Do you prefer being in the studio, or do you prefer playing live?
I have to say, man, I like ‘em both! I really like being in front of the people… because I feel like I’m giving them what they love and want to hear, and they’re also giving me what I love and want to see. I love to see them enjoy themselves.
I grew up in the juke-joints and I’m so used to people dancing and stomping their feet and kicking up dust. So I love to see that. That’s a big part of me. That’s a big part of why I love to keep music going. Besides just loving music for myself. I love to see my fans, and other people love music, as well.
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‘Step In’ is a real highlight, what spurred that song into being?
I actually wrote ‘Step In’ on the acoustic. Because you’ll be sitting around in the dressing room sometimes, and you won’t have time to plug in an amp or anything, so I just grab my acoustic as it’s the easiest thing, and the quickest. So I just started thinking about things I had been through, and things I had learned along my journey of being here on this Earth for 42 years… and I just kinda put it out there.
And all while I did it, I just asked the Lord to step in. Step in at any time! Sometimes it gets hard, and you really don’t know which way to go or what to do. And you need some help. I asked the Lord to help me any way he can. It’s a struggle out here. And I’m sure some people can relate to that.
Does putting your feelings on record help you move past them, in a way?
I have to say – believe it or not – sometimes I get caught up in my words. And sometimes it’s hard for me to explain myself just talking to someone. Talking it out. And I found that I can express myself better through my music. It seems like it just comes right on out when I’m playing my music. I don’t know why it’s like that, but that’s how it is with me. I can say what I want to say through my music real easy.
A video for ‘The World Can Be So Cold’ went live a few weeks ago – it’s such an impressive song, how did that one come about?
That one right there came to me before the pandemic. It’s just things… I had talked to some family members, they were feeling down and out. I had a few friends who were feeling down and out. That song right there, it can sound a little harsh to some people. But I really wrote that song hoping to inspire people to keep on moving. Because the world don’t owe us anything – it really doesn’t. So the best we can do is keep on picking ourselves back up when we fall, and dust ourselves back up and try it again. Just keep moving, and keep doing what you need to do, and don’t let nothing get you down. That was the message I was trying to get across. You have to fight harder, love harder, and keep pushing.
People are always writing the blues off, but yet as a form of music it always survives. Why do you think so many generations turn to the blues as a means to express themselves?
I love that question, man! I really do! I think music has always been here. Especially the blues. So many people have lived the blues. And I have to say, especially my culture. African-Americans, since slavery.. they always had the blues. Before they started to play it out or anything, they just had the blues. Couldn’t really comprehend what the hell it was… but it was the blues. In these days and times, anybody can get the blues. Anybody can have it. So the blues is going to always be around, whether they like it or not, whether people listen to it or not… you’ll always have the blues.
The Hill Country sound is having another moment – Black Keys have just done a tribute of their own.
Oh yeah. I always try to pay tribute to my Big Daddy – RL Burnside – and to also talk a little bit about Junior Kimbrough, because those are the cats that really showed me the ropes. I travelled with them for so many years. Especially my Big Daddy! That’s who opened the door for me, and our whole family – as well as other great musicians who love this style of music. And so the song that I put on there was ‘Bird Without A Feather’, and that’s for my Big Daddy. That’s one song I used to love to hear him play. Amongst others!
One of the reasons I put that song on there is because I love the powerful, unorthodox rhythm that the song carries. It’s such a Hill Country song, the way my Big Daddy play it. That’s one song I wanted to put on there. And one of Junior’s – ‘Hands Off That Girl’ – is one that I used to love to hear him play, and I don’t hear people play it a whole lot these days. So that’s the one I chose for Junior Kimbrough.
“Like a bird without a feather / I am lost without your love” – that line alone is just incredible!
Ha! Yeah. There’s some deep stuff up in there!
The music still continues, though – would those innovators be surprised to see Hill Country blues surviving and moving forwards like this?
Well, I think if Big Daddy and Junior was here they would be proud that this music was still going, and keeping people happy. I know as long as I’m living, I’m going to play it until I leave this world. I got three daughters, and I pray that they carry the music on, as well. I got nephews and nieces, as well. We just need to keep this music going on for everybody because it’s not just good music, it’s really good for the soul… it makes people feel good. It’s medicine.
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‘I Be Trying’ is out now.
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