Drummer/singer/songwriter Cedric Burnside, grandson of the departed Mississippi blues artist and latter-day indie-blues hero R.L. Burnside, came up in a scene and situation more commonplace in his granddad's generation. That scene has hard-wired itself into Cedric Burnside's own music and will soon leave him the last truly down-home bluesman standing. Drummer for the senior Burnside since his early teens, Cedric eventually moved off the front porch and onto stages around the globe. His music also figured significantly on the set of Black Snake Moan, the 2006 film that was essentially a tribute to his grandfather.
"Comin' up as a little kid, about six, seven years old, you know my granddad, we didn't have a radio, so they used to have little house parties just about every other weekend," he says. "Him and his friends would get together and play on the porch, and you know all of the grandkids would get out there and kick up dust. That was my first music."
Burnside describes his hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi, as "a little, small town between Memphis and Tupelo." It's the epicenter of the Hill Country blues sound epitomized by artists like R.L. Burnside and the late Junior Kimbrough, music that found an audience outside the blues scene via the Fat Possum label. Burnside and his guitarist-partner Lightnin' Malcolm are catching their breath midway through a five-month road stretch supporting their second duo effort, 2008's 2 Man Wrecking Crew. It's a set of original songs that sounds at once both old and new.
The time-warp feel of Burnside's musical upbringing stamps his present as well as his past. It's not that he doesn't dig hip-hop — Mystikal and T-Pain are favorites — but when pressed for influences beyond his grandfather's obvious touch, he cites Bobby Bland and deceased '60s/'70s soul star Tyrone Davis. The throwback nature of his upbringing came courtesy of his granddad's reverse emigration. Leaving Mississippi for Chicago in the 1950s for a better job prospects — and some informal blues tutelage from his cousin's husband, Muddy Waters — R.L. endured the murders of his father, brother and uncle in a single month.
He returned to Holly Springs to farm, play, do some prison time and ultimately sire an extended family that would, over time, function as ambassadors for roots music in a number of band configurations. As Fat Possum began releasing the work of the Hill Country men, R.L. Burnside emerged as the label's only major moneymaker. His trio, with Cedric on drums and neighbor/protégé Kenny Brown on guitar, toured Europe and garnered indie-rock fame and blues-purist flack for partnering onstage and in studio with blues punks the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. As a band member, Cedric saw a different side of his granddad.
In Steve "Lightnin'" Malcolm, Burnside has found a simpatico musical sidekick. While his upbringing could hardly match young Burnside's in terms of blues myth, Malcolm was raised in rural Kansas and grew up on roots music. Burnside's friend for a decade or so, Malcolm followed Burnside's band with the persistence of a stalker.
Malcolm eventually made it to the High Temple of Hill Country blues: Junior Kimbrough's juke joint in Holly Springs. Burnside and Malcolm made their debut with 2007's Juke Joint Duo and expanded on their sound with 2 Man Wrecking Crew. The basic sound of Crew would be familiar to the typical Black Keys fan. In the hands of Burnside and Malcolm, however, the minimalist format takes on a roots-bound character that speaks to a source well beyond the suburban garage. Songs are built up from the sorts of pieces and parts found in countless old blues tunes, with lyrical content to match. But thanks to Burnside's transgenerational persona, they sound newer than they ought to. In a musical category hardly heralded for its freshness these days, these guys play blues that's authentic in nature. It's original, energetic and something of a giveback to the indie scene that has embraced the Hill Country sound.