Grammy-Nominated Blues Musician Cedric Burnside Remembers His Roots

Feb 10, 2019
Originally published on February 10, 2019 11:44 am

Growing up poor in Mississippi, Cedric Burnside didn't have running water.

It's a fact he highlights in the first song on his Grammy-nominated album, Benton County Relic.

In the upbeat, soulful song, titled "We Made It," Burnside croons verses like, "I came from nothing, I done been lower than low" and "Walk 3 miles every day, to have water in the house for another day."

Burnside grew up in his grandfather's house, along with many of his cousins. It wasn't until he was 12 years old that they finally got running water.

"When you don't have running water and you finally move in a place that has running water ... y'done made it," he said, speaking to the title of his first song.

It's no surprise that Burnside's album was nominated for a Grammy this year in the Best Traditional Blues category, considering his family roots. He is the grandson of the late R. L. Burnside, who was among a group of musicians known for a style called North Mississippi hill country blues.

R.L., who Burnside calls "Big Daddy," was the person who helped him get his start in music. At the age of 13, Burnside started playing drums in juke joints with his grandfather and the two went on to tour extensively together.

The influence of his grandfather is featured in his song "Ain't Gonna Take No Mess From You," where Burnside sings "My school was a juke joint from a kid till I was grown, and blues is really all I've never known."

Burnside, now 40, pays tribute to his grandfather in other ways as well. Stepping up to the microphone for a performance in Des Moines, Iowa he said, "This is a song I used to hear my "Big Daddy" play all the time."

Then, just like his grandfather used to, Burnside started plucking the strings on his guitar to kick off the song, "Just Like A Woman."

"There was Adam had to make a bee, that eve had to messin' that old apple tree," he sang to the backdrop of a stuttering notes. "Just like a woman ... just like a woman they'll do it every time."

This is a style that strips the music to the bone, according to Greg Johnson, a blues curator at the University of Mississippi.

"The emphasis is really on the rhythmic drive of the piece," Johnson said. "You get a little riff going, a little groove going in the guitar. A lot of times you won't change to another chord."

Cedric Burnside (left) poses with his cousin, Kent Burnside (right) before his Dec. 1, 2018 performance in Des Moines, Iowa.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio

Burnside prefers to call the unorthodox style, "feel music." It's what his grandfather used to play on the weekends, after working as a sharecropper during the day.

In the documentary "You See Me Laughin': The Last of the Hill Country Bluesmen," R.L. spoke about his own humble origins and said, "We'd play, man, from 8 o'clock till 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning. Probably get 3 dollars."

Everything changed when R.L. was signed to Fat Possum Records in the 1990s and started playing in rock clubs across the country. Some of R.L.'s music was featured in the Sopranos, helping the music reach an even wider audience.

Despite the success, R.L. never moved out of his rural home. Instead, he opened his home up for more family members to stay.

"He would give you the shirt off his back. I mean literally," Burnside said. "But he always kept that .38 in his left pocket. Know what I'm saying? He never took that out."

Burnside's career was inspired by his grandfather's attitude toward success. Now, he in turn inspires his older cousin, Kent Burnside, who is also a blues musician and who grew up in the same house as Burnside.

"I'm like, he did it," Kent said. "I just gotta find a different way of doing it because everybody's method ain't the same, y'know what I'm sayin'? But I knew it was possible."

Burnside wants to be known as more than R.L. Burnside's grandson, but still wants to pay tribute to his grandfather, who died in 2005.

"Before I leave this world I want to make my mark," Burnside said. "That's what I'm trying to do right, but as I do that, I want to not forget where I come from and where I learned it from, which is R.L. Burnside."

Copyright 2019 Iowa Public Radio News. To see more, visit Iowa Public Radio News.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The Grammys are tonight. And among the nominees in the best traditional blues category is Cedric Burnside. Blues music runs in Cedric Burnside's family. He's the grandson of the late R.L. Burnside, who was the best-known of a group of musicians who play a style called North Mississippi hill country blues. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports Cedric is picking up where his grandfather left off.

(SOUNDBITE OF CEDRIC BURNSIDE SONG, "WE MADE IT")

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: The first song on Cedric Burnside's latest album is "We Made It." It's about growing up poor in Mississippi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE MADE IT")

CEDRIC BURNSIDE: (Singing) I came from nothing. I done been lower than low.

MASTERS: Ask Burnside what constitutes making it for him...

C BURNSIDE: Actually, getting running water (laughter) - you know what I'm saying? When you don't have running water and you finally move in a place that has running water, you done made it.

MASTERS: That happened when his grandfather, R.L. Burnside, finally got water when Cedric was 12.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE MADE IT")

C BURNSIDE: (Singing) Walk three miles every day to have water in the house for another day

MASTERS: Cedric grew up mostly in his grandfather's house along with many of his cousins. One of them was Kent Burnside.

KENT BURNSIDE: We grew up together. We ate at the same plate, shared the same socks. I might've stole a couple of his socks.

MASTERS: (Laughter).

K BURNSIDE: You know what I'm saying?

MASTERS: Cedric got his start in music at 13, playing drums in juke joints with his grandfather, which he also sings about on his latest album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T GONNA TAKE NO MESS FROM YOU")

C BURNSIDE: (Singing) My school was a juke joint, from a kid till I was grown. And blues is really all I've ever known.

MASTERS: Cedric went on to tour extensively with R.L.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

R L BURNSIDE: (Singing) Love is the devil, but it won’t get me.

On drums is my grandson, Mr. Cedric Burnside.

MASTERS: Like his grandfather, who he calls Big Daddy, Cedric also plays guitar.

C BURNSIDE: (Playing guitar) And this is a song I used to hear my Big Daddy play all the time, "Just Like A Woman."

MASTERS: North Mississippi hill country blues is a stripped-to-the-bone style of music, says Greg Johnson, University of Mississippi blues curator.

GREG JOHNSON: The emphasis is really on the rhythmic drive of the piece. You get a little riff going, a little groove going in the guitar. A lot of times, you won't change to another chord.

C BURNSIDE: (Playing guitar, singing) There was Adam had to make a bee, that Eve had to messin’ that old apple tree. That's just like a woman. That's just like a woman. That's just like a woman. They'll do it every time.

So the style of hill country blues is very unorthodox. It's just - it's feel music, I like to call.

MASTERS: It's a style of music R.L. Burnside played on weekends, after working as a sharecropper during the day, as he said in a 2002 documentary, "You See Me Laughin': The Last Of The Hill Country Bluesmen."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "YOU SEE ME LAUGHIN': THE LAST OF THE HILL COUNTRY BLUESMEN")

R L BURNSIDE: We'd play, man, from 8 o'clock to 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, probably get $3.

MASTERS: But in the 1990s, things changed. R..L signed to Fat Possum Records, which had him playing in rock clubs across the country. And his music reached an even wider audience when it was featured in "The Sopranos."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")

JAMES GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Look at this baby I caught right off the pointe here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S BAD YOU KNOW")

R L BURNSIDE: It's bad, you know.

MASTERS: Even though his grandfather had, in a small way, made it, he didn't move out of his rural home, says Cedric. He just opened it up to more family.

C BURNSIDE: He will give you the shirt off his back. I mean, literally, he will give you the shirt off his back. But he always kept that .38 in his left pocket, you know what I'm saying? He never - never took that out, you know (laughter).

MASTERS: R.L. Burnside's attitude towards success certainly inspired his grandson, whose own career inspires his older cousin, Kent, also a blues musician.

K BURNSIDE: Well, you know, I'm like, he did it. I mean, I just got to find a different way of doing it because everybody's method ain't same as - you know what I'm saying? But I knew it was possible.

MASTERS: And for his part, Cedric wants to be known as more than R.L. Burnside's grandson.

C BURNSIDE: Before I leave this world, I want to make my mark. You know, and so that's what I'm trying to do right now. But as I do that, I want to not forget about where I come from and where I learned it from, which is R.L. Burnside.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE MADE IT")

C BURNSIDE: (Singing) But we made it. But we made it. But we made it. Yes, we did.

MASTERS: For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE MADE IT")

C BURNSIDE: (Singing) Yes, we did. Yes, we did. Yes we did... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.