These days, you might not recognize Cedric Burnside from his appearance in the acclaimed 1991 documentary Deep Blues: A Musical Pilgrimage to the Crossroads.
"I'm one of the grandkids in the back of the truck," says the Mississippi bluesman. "I'm the tallest kid, and my brother Cody, he's on the bike with no wheels on it. He'll be with us when we come through, and you'll be like, 'Man, that's the guy who was on that bike!" But you'll see that he got way bigger than he used to be."
As did Cedric, especially when it comes to his stature as a professional musician. At 13, he began touring as a drummer with his grandfather R.L. Burnside, the famed country blues singer who experienced an unexpected career resurgence after his unlikely 1996 collaboration with Pussy Galore/Blues Explosion frontman Jon Spencer. R.L. had turned 70 that same year, and though he'd seen a lot in his life, sudden success with a lanky, pasty-faced New York City punk rocker was never part of the equation.
"I played with my granddaddy for 11, 12 years, until he got ill and passed, and I didn't see it coming myself," says Cedric. "But I remember that Fat Possum [the Mississippi label that was also home to R.L.'s lifelong friend Junior Kimbrough] got the call from Jon Spencer's manager, and they wanted my granddad. You know, they loved his music, they was big fans. And we hadn't never heard of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. We was like, who the hell is that, you know? We never heard of that shit."
So Cedric and R.L. flew to New York to see the band, and gratefully accepted some earplugs from Spencer's manager.
"To see them onstage, you would think that they were the wildest guys you'd ever want to be around," recalls Cedric. "But when they're not performing, when they're just offstage, they cool as hell man, they real soft-spoken, just chilled out, you know?"
R.L. agreed to record an album with Spencer and also went out on tour with him, gaining access to a nascent punk-blues scene that might never have discovered him otherwise.
"It was like when Junior Kimbrough did his little thing with Iggy Pop. [The venerable blues and punk legends toured together in '96.] They didn't think it was gonna be real good, because the blues thing is what they do, you know? So when granddad did that CD with John Spencer, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, he was like, 'No, they ain't gonna buy that.' But sure enough, it was one of the bestselling albums that he put out."
The moaning after
A decade later, Cedric appeared in another film, drumming alongside Samuel L. Jackson in Black Snake Moan. Jackson plays a character based on Cedric's grandfather, one that pretty much obliterates the fine line between tribute and exploitation.
So, plot-wise, was anything in that film actually true?
"Well, you know, not all of it," says Cedric. "My granddaddy, you know, obviously he played music in blues clubs. But he didn't have no white girl chained to no radiator, you know what I'm saying? And his wife didn't leave him for his brother, that shit didn't happen. But I think he would have gotten a big kick out of that movie. You know, he'd be laughing and shit."
The breakthroughs of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough ended up paving the way for a new wave of considerably younger alt-blues duos like the Black Keys (who Cedric likes) and the White Stripes (who he hasn't really listened to).
Cedric and Lightnin' Malcolm's "juke joint duo" shares that same guitar/drums format, but in service of a mostly traditional sound. Cedric also plays some solo numbers on an old Harmony acoustic guitar given to him by Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi Allstars. In addition, his brother Cody takes the mic for a few newly recorded numbers that feature his raps — or, as Cedric puts it, his "Mississippi flows."
Cedric says he met up with his current musical partner while still touring with his grandfather.
"Malcolm is actually from Missouri, but I remember doing shows in California and New Mexico, and I look in the audience and there goes Malcolm. Even when I'd get back to Mississippi and we'd do some festivals — maybe in Leland, Mississippi, or Clarksdale — then I look up, you know, and there goes Malcolm. So eventually he made his way to Junior Kimbrough's juke joint before it burned down, and we played a few time and just got acquainted with each other."
They gotta have it
Sundays at Junior's Place, says Cedric, were a magical thing: "People couldn't wait to get off work to come hear this music. You had people coming from the car shop where they work at — they got oil all over their shirt, oil all over their pants, hands — but they don't give a damn, they comin' straight to Junior Kimbrough's juke joint. That's what the music did for them, they had to have it."
Cedric also speaks reverently of Otha Turner's picnics, which he and his family would drive to every year. The annual event centered on Turner's fife-and-drum music, a fairly obscure rural version of the blues. Listen to Turner's Everybody Hollerin' Goat album, and you'll most likely be amazed.
"There are probably some other places around that got the fife and drum, but I haven't been there," says Cedric. "The only place I know of is right there in Panola County — you know, Como, Mississippi — with Mr. Otha Turner. They cook up a bunch of goat meat, they cook burgers, fish, I mean whatever you name, they cook it. You got two-dollar beers and you drink corn liquor, 'cos everybody you pass by, they got a gallon or two of corn liquor. Playing there was an unbelievable experience. If you haven't been, you really should go."
When not drinking corn liquor, Cedric favors the less legal indulgence chronicled in his song, "Fire It Up," which tells of him going to jail and lighting up in his cell. The song does take some poetic license, though not as much as Black Snake Moan.
"The cops searched me real good when I went to jail — and so I forgot myself that I had a little bit on me — but I didn't fire it up in the jail cell. But most all of my fans that know Cedric Burnside, they know I like to get blazed. It ain't no fuckin' secret."
Still, back home in Mississippi, Cedric still spends most of his time writing and playing music. ("You know, if you was to go to my house, hell, you would get a free show.") He figures it's good to write about what you know.
"That's what I try to do every time I write a song," he says. "Things that I've been through, experiences that I've had. Whether it's good or bad, whether I'm the fault or somebody else is the fault. And the reason I do it is because somebody out there may be going through the same shit that I done been through, and I'm just hoping they can relate to it."