For Cedric Burnside, music is intertwined with family.
The music, in this case, is hill country blues. Inherent to the Northern counties of Mississippi, it’s a raw, rural and primal sound, heavy on groove and low on frills. Everything about the style is executed in rustic service to the rhythm. The music has existed for ages, but it wasn’t until the recordings of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough that it gained favor with a new blues generation during the early 1990s.
Burnside. Kimbrough. Those are family names. The former is drummer Cedric’s late grandfather and, for a time during his early teen years, his bandleader and employer. Kimbrough wasn’t a blood relative to the Burnsides, but he might as well have been. Their families have long been personally and professionally linked.
To young Cedric Burnside, Kimbrough was a musical father figure. But R.L. will forever be “Big Daddy.”
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“I got my start from my Big Daddy,” the drummer said. “I just thank him and the good Lord for everything. A big part of who I am today is because of R.L. Burnside. But the music still goes on. I was influenced not only by my grandfather, but by Junior Kimbrough, Paul ‘Wine’ Jones, Jesse Mae Hemphill and Otha Turner. Those were the cats I was around most of the time, and those were the cats that kind of showed me the ropes. I just love these people so much. They were such a big part of my life that I want everyone to know where I got this music from. I just want them to be proud of me for keeping this going.”
“This music” is the current work of the Cedric Burnside Project — a blunt-force, two-man band with Burnside on drums and vocals, and lifelong pal Trenton Ayers on guitar. Ayers is the son of Joe Ayers, one of the original bass players in Kimbrough’s band, affirming further the generational and familial ties that hold hill country blues together. Ironically, bass has no place in the Burnside Project’s makeup.
“The main thing about hill country blues is that it’s so different from any other kind of blues you’ll hear. It’s very unique. It’s unorthodox. It’s off the beaten path. It’s not music you can write out or read off paper. You just have to listen and look and hope you can learn it from the cats that know the music in their bones and in their heart. That’s kind of how I see it. I grew up around this music, so I had to really listen hard. I had to focus. Man, I couldn’t take my eyes and ears off of it for one second.”
There were other important figures in Burnside’s musical upbringing, as well. They included his uncle Gary Burnside, younger brother Cody Burnside and father/drummer Calvin Jackson. All have passed away, but their spirits get a hearty workout in the lean and muscular music the drummer has summoned on recordings, the most recent being the 2015 album “Descendants of Hill Country.”
“My dad was definitely one of my idols as far as drummers went,” Burnside said. “He had his own unique style of playing. I watched my dad and my Big Daddy and my uncle play house parties when I was five, six years old. All the grandkids gathered around at those parties, listening to the music and kicking up some dust by dancing to it. So I knew at a very young age what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, just from watching them doing their thing. I used to sit there mesmerized, watching my Big Daddy and my dad’s friends. I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do, and that’s what I want to be.’
“One day I just gathered up the nerve to really thump on the drums after they took a break. It didn’t really matter if I could play or not. What mattered was just being up there. People started saying, ‘Look at that little young man. He’s going to be good someday.’ So here I am today, still doing what I love.”