Take one glance at the iconic tintype photograph which serves as the cover to his new album, Benton County Relic, and you know immediately that Cedric Burnside is the real deal. “When I first saw it, I thought I looked like an outlaw,” he laughs.
The 39-year-old still lives on several acres not far from the Holly Springs, Mississippi, home where he was raised by “Big Daddy,” his grandfather, the late singer/songwriter/guitarist R.L. Burnside whom Cedric famously played with, just as his own father, drummer Calvin Jackson, did. Cedric was literally born to the blues, more specifically, the “rhythmically unorthodox” Hill country variant which emerged from Mississippi, where he grew up surrounded (and influenced) by Junior Kimbrough, Jessie May Hemphill and Otha Turner, as well as delta musicians T-Model Ford and Paul “Wine” Jones.
Grammy-nominated in 2015 for Best Blues Album for the Cedric Burnside Project’s Descendants of Hill Country, as well as the recipient of the Blues Music Awards honor as Drummer of the Year for four consecutive years, Cedric’s latest album offers a showcase for his electric and acoustic guitar, recording 26 tracks in just two days with drummer/slide guitarist Brian Jay in the latter’s Brooklyn home studio in a rush of creativity. It’s his first release for Single Lock Records, the Florence, Alabama label headquartered across the Tennessee River from the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and responsible for critically acclaimed records by John Paul White, Nicole Atkins, Dylan LeBlanc and St. Paul & the Broken Bones.
Burnside has brought a music that started as an expression of grief and a will to survive into a modern-day art form that is both timely and timeless, a glimpse of myth and insight into the human condition. “Back in the day, it wasn’t heard as music, but more like ‘somebody help me, I want to get out of this situation,’” says Cedric. “These days, anybody can have the blues. Some people deal with loss by going out and getting drunk or even killing themselves. The blues is about surviving through those hard times, telling the world what you’ve been through, and how you came out of it.”
Cedric has both played and recorded with the North Mississippi Allstars (Luther Dickinson gave him his first electric guitar), Widespread Panic, Jimmy Buffett, Bobby Rush, Hubert Sumlin, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. He was also featured playing drums alongside Samuel L. Jackson in Craig Brewer’s 2006 feature film, Black Snake Moan, which was in part a tribute to his grandfather R.L. and other iconic bluesmen.
Now planning to tour with collaborator Brian Jay to promote the new album, Cedric eschews politics in favor of the personal. “I know there’s a lot going on in the world,” he says. “But I try to give it all to God and let Him handle it. Politics divides people. The blues brings them together. A bluesman has to find a way to make it through.”
Cedric Burnside isn’t content with just making it through. On Benton County Relic, he brings the blues alive for a new generation of fans weaned on the likes of White Stripes and the Black Keys. And why not? That’s all he’s ever known.