A quick chat with the grandson of blues great R.L. Burnside on the heels of his long-awaited solo debut
It sure may have felt like it, but the blues did not die on August 27, 1990 when a helicopter crash killed Stevie Ray Vaughan in Wisconson. However, throughout most of that decade, the blues had retreated back into the Mississippi Delta region from where it originated, and reintroduced to the public through the droning, dirt floor boogie of local heroes like T-Model Ford, Junior Kimbrough and Othar Turner in a style they called “Hill Country Blues,” which gained renown thanks to the championing of legendary music critic Robert Palmer and a small indie label out of Oxford, MS, called Fat Possum Records.
The king of this variation, quite arguably, was the late, great Robert Lee Burnside, or R.L. Burnside for short. He had been playing and recording music since the 1960s, but his career really began to take off following Fat Possum’s subsequent distribution deals with Matador and Epitaph Records exposed Burnside and the blues to a whole new generation of music fans. And along for this DIY revival was R.L.’s grandson Cedric Burnside, who has just released his first proper debut with the excellent Benton County Relic. Recorded at the iconic Ardent Studios in Memphis and distributed through the Single Lock imprint, the album finds the youngest Burnside celebrating his 40th birthday by keeping the dark magic of the music that made both his grandfather and father–drummer Calvin Jackson, innovator of the Hill Country blues rhythm–such heroes in late 20th century blues music alive and well in a time when the blues is struggling to get heard.
Cedric took a few moments to answer some of our burning questions over e-mail ahead of Relic’s 9/14 street date and spoke on the new album and how it correlates with his already established legacy as one of the most crucial modern voices in American blues.
Why the long wait to release your solo album? Was it always something you wanted to do?
Well yes!It was something I always wanted to do. I wrote my first song when I was 12 and I always knew I would do a solo album one day. Don’t know why it took me so long!
I’d love to hear the story behind the album’s title.
Well, as for the title of the album – Just growing up in the house with my Big Daddy. He played a lot of old school blues like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and especially Mississippi Fred McDowell. So I kind of grew up with an old soul. So when I write new music you can still hear a little old school in there. And so I think Relic fits my soul, and my soul fix is my music, if that make sense!
I’m surprised to see Benton County Relic wasn’t released on Fat Possum. Why did you choose to go with Single Lock over your dad’s old imprint?
Well I had a meeting with Fat Possum. But things just didn’t quite come together, which happens a lot in music these days. But we still cool with each other, so that’s good! I did notice the change in their format as well. But I didn’t really focus on it, because things change, people change. All the time.
The R.L. Burnside combo was a precursor to the blues duo and trio format that’s become all the rage with cats like the White Stripes, Black Keys and now your new group with guitarist/drummer Brian Jay. What do you think is the advantage of creating electric blues in the duo format?
As for duo music: I wouldn’t say it has many advantages, except you have less people to pay! But you have to still be extra tight because it’s only two people.
Benton County Relic also marks your initial foray into playing guitar on record…
Not many people have heard me play the electric guitar, let alone the guitar in general. But as long as I am able to play music, I will stay true to the foundation that was laid by the legends of Mississippi Hill Country Blues, especially my Big Daddy. However I can do it, whether its on drums or the guitar.
Please tell me about the first time you played with your grandpa.
The first time I played with my Big Daddy, I was in the Juke Joint. And I was about 10 years old; it was a great experience playing that young at the Juke Joint!
I got into RL through Jon Spencer and the A Ass Pocket of Whiskey album. What are some of your favorite memories of that period and that tour?
Well I have to say, I never saw my Big Daddy dance so much in my life! Being on the road with those guys was really cool!
Are you still in touch with Kenny Brown?
Kenny Brown! Yes Kenny and I still stay in touch. Hopefully we will get to do some more music together real soon. We will keep you posted!!
Is there anything left in the R.L. vault we have yet to hear?
Well I don’t think there is any more music in the vault that we haven’t heard. But there may be some that didn’t make it to the vault that we haven’t heard! There is always somethin’!