Cedric Burnside

Hill Country Blues Musician, Songwriter, and 2021 National Heritage Fellow
A man sitting on a porch playing the guitar.

Photo credit: Hypothetical

Soul Sand written and performed by Kosta T. Used courtesy of Free Music Archive

“I Be Tryin’” performed live by Cedric and Portrika Burnside, written by Cedric Burnside.
“Goin’ Down South” from the album, A Bothered Mind. Composed and performed by RL Burnside,

with Cedric Burnside on drums.
“Ain’t Gonna Take No Mess,” written and performed by Cedric Burnside from the cd Benton

County Relic.

Cedric Burnside: I like to think of it as the rhythm of hill country blues and I like to think of it as it’s unorthodox. It’s not a straight one-four-five, like normal blues would be. It’s kind of got a rhythm of its own. It’s kind of hard to explain, actually, but it’s really a distinct sound and I think the unorthodox rhythm is what makes hill country blues stand out from any other blues music you hear.

That is Hill Country blues musician, songwriter and 2021 NEA National Heritage Fellow Cedric Burnside and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed —

Jo Reed: Cedric Burnside is a proud inheritor of Mississippi Hill Country blues. his father was drummer Calvin Jackson, and his Grandfather—the man Cedric calls his Big Daddy-- was the great bluesman RL Burnside. Cedric essentially grew up in RL’s house, listening to the music, playing along at the regular house parties, and at the local juke joint. Cedric began as a drummer and by 13, he was backing RL and a host of blues’ legends on tours. Beginning his musical life as a drummer (and an award-winning one at that), Cedric added guitar-playing to his repertoire—partly because he found it useful for his prolific song- writing. He soon came out with a solo album Benton County Relic which nominated for Grammy and showed once again that Cedric Burnside is one of great proponents of this distinctive music. He tends to the tradition—but he also makes it his own. This isn’t music calcified in the past; it’s very much of the present—but you can hear and feel its deep roots. I was thrilled to speak with Cedric before a show in Brooklyn, NY. Since we were back stage, you’ll be able to hear a little back ground noise as well as an air conditioner that would occasionally turn on. But no matter... Cedric Burnside is a terrific story-teller. Because Hill Country is central to the music and to the man—I asked Cedric to tell me about the where he was raised.

Cedric Burnside:. I grew up in a little town called Chulahoma, Mississippi on the outskirts of a town called Holly Springs. But yeah, it’s where I come from, the environment I come from, the family I come from. They played hill country blues at house parties every other weekend. People would come from miles away just to hear it on the weekends and it was kind of a traditional thing. It’s something that just goes on in North Mississippi. People throw house parties at the juke joints or on their front porch and people just come to have fun. That’s the hill country way.

Jo Reed: Your family has deep roots in this music. Your dad was drummed Calvin Jackson. Cedric Burnside: Yes.

Jo Reed: Your grandfather, the great bluesman R.L. Burnside. Tell me a little bit about both. I know that both mentored you.

Cedric Burnside: Yeah. They did in different ways, both in different ways. I spent most of my time with my big daddy, R.L. I spent most of my time with him. I kind of spent my whole childhood with him. So, I was always around the music. It was in my blood. I feel like I was born with this music in me, but I was always around it from a little kid and I used to watch my dad, Calvin Jackson, and my uncles, Daniel Burnside and Joseph Burnside, and my big daddy, of course, R.L. I used to watch them play every other weekend and I knew it was just something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life, even at a young age, six, seven years old. I watched my dad on the drums and I just watched him in amazement. I watched my big daddy and he was singing and he was playing and his voice was like something that was out of this world and I knew it was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life and I knew that at a young age.

Jo Reed: That’s really fortunate. Tell me about the rest of your childhood. What was it like?

Cedric Burnside: Well, a lot of people would say it was pretty rough. Just kind of the way I grew up, the environment I grew up in, we didn’t have running water when I was growing up until I was about 11, 12 years old. We hauled water just to bathe, to eat, to clean, and I would walk a mile, sometimes a mile and a half, me and other grandchildren, we would walk with a belt on our back and hauling water and jugs. So, we did that for years and to me, it was normal. It’s what I always knew. I had to haul water from three, four years old. If I was big enough to hold a jug, I would go get water. It was the way we did things and so, it was normal to me. I didn’t think any poor thoughts. I knew that sometimes we would be kind of low in food, mainly meat. My big daddy was a sharecropper. So, he would get up real early in the morning, five, six o’clock in the morning to go get on the tractor to plow the fields and so, he would get out there and really just work for food and shelter and in return, the landlord let us say in this little shack house, about a four-room house and I mean just four rooms and we stayed in that house in return for my big daddy working for the landlord and when it come time to harvest the crops, they would go to the market and sell what they can and then they would split what they have left between my big daddy and the landlord. That’s really how he did things for a while, food and shelter. He worked and in return, food and shelter was his pay for all of us and that’s where I come from. I’m not ashamed of where I come from. I’m not ashamed of what I went through to get where I’m at right now. It made me stronger, definitely made me not take anything for granted. So, I come from that world and I’m here right now because of my big daddy, R.L. Burnside.

Jo Reed: So, he’s sharecropping and also, creating all this extraordinary music.

Cedric Burnside: Music all at the same time. He would jump off the tractor after being on it for three or four hours. He would jump off because somebody would come and want to meet him and we stayed way

deep off in the sticks and so, if they come to that house, they wanted to be there. So, he would get off the tractor and come and do an interview and maybe play a song or too for the people who would come and then he would jump back on the tractor and go back to work and on the weekends, like I said, they were set up on the front porch or go to a local juke joint and they would just jam out for people and people would come and bring moonshine and some people would come and maybe even bring food and drinks, just in return of listening at the music. It was always a good time when the music was going on.

Jo Reed: When did you start to play?

Cedric Burnside: Wow. I jumped on the drums for the first time when I was about six, seven years old. I was watching my dad and big daddy and uncles play and when they take a break, I always wanted to get on the drums. I drove my mom crazy beating on buckets and pans and stuff in the house. I drove her nuts doing that and I always wanted to jump on the drums when I saw my dad play, but I never had the courage to just get on them. I was ashamed and so, just one day, one evening, I just built up the courage. I don’t really know where it come from. I just felt like I wanted to get on the drums and when my dad took a break, I jumped up there on the drums and yeah, it didn’t matter if I sounded bad. I’m sure it did. But I guess...

Jo Reed: But it felt good.

Cedric Burnside: Yeah. The big part was just having the courage to get up there and do it and the people started saying “Look at that little boy. He’s going to be good someday.” I just loved that music. It always touched my heart. Even today, I love to play my music. When I’m home, I play my music. I take breaks when I’m home, but I have to play my music. It’s a big part of me.

Jo Reed: Well, you have a great line in “Ain’t Gonna Take No Mess.” It’s a great song-- “My school was a juke joint. Blues was all I ever knew.”

Cedric Burnside: From a kid until I was grown.
Cedric Burnside: Yeah. Jo Reed: I really do want to hear about your time as a kid, playing in a juke joint. Cedric Burnside: Yeah. Wow.
Jo Reed: That’s just cool.
Cedric Burnside: Are you sure you’re ready for this?
Jo Reed: I think I might be.

Cedric Burnside: Well, I have to say it was amazing. It was really amazing, adrenaline-pumping little childhood. I started playing in the juke joint about ten years old and my uncle, Gary Burnside-- he’s a couple years older than me-- everybody thinks we’re brothers, but he’s my uncle, and he started playing bass. He was about 12. I was about 10 and we started playing at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint and we

really became the house band there at a very young age. They would hide us behind the beer coolers when the police come in to check out the place because they didn’t want us to leave. We was the band. So, yeah, that started at a young age and then it wasn’t very long after that-- when I started playing in the juke joints, my dad, Calvin Jackson, he was still playing with my big daddy and so, my dad moved to Europe, a town called Oss, Holland, O-S-S, and he moved there and I guess about a year or so after he moved, I became the drummer for my big daddy and yeah, I was nervous going out of town because I’d never been anywhere.

Jo Reed: You were touring-- you started touring with him.
Cedric Burnside: I started touring with him, yeah. Fat Possum came to the juke joint when I was about

12, 13 years old.
Jo Reed: And that’s the label Fat Possum Records...

Cedric Burnside: Yes. And they came to the juke joint and they saw me playing with my big daddy and they was blown away because like I said, it’s an unorthodox rhythm of music and you have to really be on your P’s and Q’s to play drums behind the music and so, I did it well because I was so used to it. I grew up with it. I watched my dad and I watched my big daddy and I just grew up loving the groove. So, it was in me.

Jo Reed: Well, here’s the question I have for you, Cedric because okay, you toured the world with your grandfather and one tour was called the Juke Joint Tour and you were backing as the drummer your grandfather, Robert Cage, Junior Kimbrough, and Paul Jones, all of them.

Cedric Burnside: Paul “Wine” Jones, wow. Yes.

Jo Reed: I’m just so curious because the drummer is the one who really has to hold it together.

Cedric Burnside: Oh, yeah.

Jo Reed: You’re playing with four different musicians and A, that must have been an incredible learning, but I’m curious how you did it and what that was like.

Cedric Burnside: Wow. That is a great question. That’s a great question. Playing behind all of those cats, it was great. But one of the most challenging things playing behind them is every last one of them had a different rhythm. They had a different change. Their voice was different with music. So, everything was different and I’m not going to lie. It was challenging a lot of times and so, I actually had to go practice with these guys when I had time off, which was very little. I had very little time off. If I had a couple days off, I was practicing either with Paul Wine Jones or Mr. Robert Cage or vice versa, Junior Kimbrough. So, I had to really adapt and that’s kind of what I did. One of my most challenging people to play with was Mr. Robert Cage and for that, I loved it even more because he had the most unique changes and I loved them and if you didn’t really hear him and listen really hard, you would miss that change and believe me, if you missed that change, you were gone. You were off the road, trust me. Yeah. You done ran off the

road if you missed that change. It’s mandatory. But I really enjoyed it playing with all of those cats, man, and they had different stories. They each came from different walks of life, but kind of the same because they struggled in all the walks of life. But it was really good. Yeah. It was really amazing.

Jo Reed: You were Blues Drummer of the Year, what, five years in a row? I could be missing one or two. Cedric Burnside: Yeah. I won about eight times.
Jo Reed: Eight. I thought it was-- five was in a row.
Cedric Burnside: Five in a row, yeah.

Jo Reed: Which is extraordinary.

Cedric Burnside: Yeah. Well, thank the universe for working with me, you know?

Jo Reed: You’re working with the universe.

Cedric Burnside: Yes.

Jo Reed: It has to go both ways.

Cedric Burnside: We got to agree. Yeah.

Jo Reed: So, what compelled you to pick up a guitar and to start playing the guitar and adding that to your repertoire?

Cedric Burnside: All right. Well, several different reasons-- one, I have to just really say this first-- one reason I wanted to play guitar is I just felt it in my bones, in my blood. When I watched my big daddy on the stage, after playing drums behind him for so long, I watched him on that stage and I picked up the guitar for the first time, I guess around 2003, maybe 2002 or something like that and I just really wanted to learn how to play and just playing my music for so long to other people for a long time, I didn’t know how to play guitar and so, I always had a drummer-- I mean, a guitar player and I played drums and sang behind the drums.

Jo Reed: So, you would sing while you...

Cedric Burnside: Yeah. I would sing when I drum and so, I got used to kind of humming out the music because I couldn’t play it and I had to hum it out and whatever guitar player I had, they had to just do it their way by my mouth.

Jo Reed: You mean that’s the way you would teach the songs you composed to the guitar-player—you would hum the music?

Cedric Burnside: Yes....And so, I got kind of frustrated with that. I wanted to show people what I was

thinking in my mind, what I was hearing in my head. I wanted to show people that and I thought to myself what better way to show them than to just learn how to play this guitar and then you can show them and I got in and out the guitar for a while and I didn’t really have time to focus on it like I want to, like I wanted to at that time and so, maybe about ten years ago is when I really sat down and really focused and said that I was going to do this. I was going to try to be good at it and try to be me. I didn’t want to be nobody else. I wanted to play what I heard in my head.

Jo Reed: And that’s what I was going to ask you: what were you able to say with the guitar that you couldn’t with drums?

Cedric Burnside: That’s a great question. It became my newfound love. It definitely became my newfound love and my way of writing really changed. I wrote a lot of times with the drums, of course, because that was my first instrument. But getting to play the guitar and really sing to the melody of the guitar, whatever the guitar do, you try to mimic that and so, that was a new thing for me, but also, a really cool thing. I really loved it and so, I started doing it more, trying to find little melodies to my guitar playing and try to make my voice sound like that key, whatever that was because I couldn’t read music. I can’t read it right now. I know some keys and some I’m still learning, but yeah, it changed my way of writing, changed my way of setting up a song structure-wise. I like to think I got a lot from it and I still got a lot to learn.

Jo Reed: When did you start writing songs?

Cedric Burnside: Oh, wow.

Jo Reed: And what inspires you when you do?

Cedric Burnside: Well, I started writing at a very young age. I think I was about 12, 13 years old when I wrote my first song.

Jo Reed: I didn’t realize that.

Cedric Burnside: I was in so, so much. But yeah, I try to write my music according to what I go through in life. Life throws me all kinds of different curveballs. Every day, every year, something different happens in my life and for the most part, it’s been great things, good things. Bad things have happened in my life. I know it happens in everybody’s life at some point, but that’s really what I try to write about, things that I go through today, things that my family and friends go through and try to talk about things that I hope to inspire people, I hope to inspire and encourage people, inspire people to do great things, to write things, and just to really take life for what it is, try not to be too serious and just try to be the best person that you can be. I think if you can try to be the best person you can be, I think we’ll get through life way better than we’re doing right now.

Jo Reed: Amen. Those are the stories that you tell with your songs.
Cedric Burnside: That’s what I try to put out there with my songs. I try to put out positivity, but I also try to

be real to the fact because everything out there is not positive. Jo Reed: I mean, look at your recent CD, “I Be Trying.” Cedric Burnside: “I Be Trying.”
Jo Reed: There we are.

Cedric Burnside: Exactly.
Jo Reed: Was “Benton County Relic” your first solo CD?
Cedric Burnside: Yes. My first solo CD on guitar was “Benton County Relic.”
Jo Reed: What was that experience like for you? There you are, it’s like “Okay. I’m ready.”

Cedric Burnside: You know, it was really amazing. I have to say, it was really awesome. I’ll tell what made it so awesome to me. What made it so awesome is I got a chance to do me instead of writing stuff with other people or collaborating with other people, I got a chance to do Cedric Burnside. What you see is what you get. What you hear is what you get. The raw, stripped-down blues is where I come from. Guitar and drums, that’s where I come from. So, I wanted to give people that because that’s where my heart is and “Benton County Relic” let me do that. I wanted to show people that not only do I want to play guitar, not only do I want to play drums, I want to play every instrument I can before I leave this world. I want to write songs until I leave this world. I want to just show people that I’m a songwriter, not just a guitarist, drummer. I’m a songwriter, but I like to think of myself as a musician. That’s what musicians do.

Jo Reed: Yeah. That’s just what I was thinking. Yeah. Exactly. Of course, it was nominated for a Grammy, your second, but come on.

Cedric Burnside: There it is again, universe, universe. Jo Reed: Right out of the bag.
Cedric Burnside: Let’s keep on working.

Jo Reed: You’ve said that you want to be authentic and unique, traditional, but also modern and that is-- can be a hard needle to thread and I think you succeed brilliantly, but I’m just curious how you go about doing that.

Cedric Burnside: Yeah. I really don’t even think about the music that I play except that’s what comes out of me. I really just play whatever comes out of me, whatever it sounds like, that’s what it sounds like. I really don’t think of myself as playing the guitar. It’s kind of like the guitar plays me. I just play whatever comes through me and it just comes out. But I don’t really think about the sound. It just comes out that way. It’s just what’s in me. I have had people tell me “Man, wow, your music sounds like old school back in the 60s and the 70s. It sounds so old but so modern,” and so, that’s why I say I’m glad to sound old

school, but modern at the same time. I’m glad to sound that way, but I’m also glad to be different. Most people that listen at music, they have told me that I don’t sound like anybody that they done heard before. So, I got my own thing and I’m proud of it. Some people don’t get it. A lot of people do get it because of the unorthodox rhythm and stuff of the music and just where I come from. I tend to still write my music like that, not trying to keep the tradition alive, per se, but it’s just happening and I’m glad and I’m proud and I thank my big daddy, R.L. Burnside for just believing in me enough. Glad to be a part of the Burnside family. He opened the door for us and for other great musicians who love this style of music as well. So, I’m just happy to be a part of that family and really grateful that the hill country blues is embedded in my heart and it will always be there.

Jo Reed: So, in your recent release, “I Be Trying,” 10 out of the 12 tunes are original and you have a couple of R.L. Burnside, including “Bird Without a Feather,” which is great.

Cedric Burnside: Well, thank you.
Jo Reed: That balance-- you have to be thoughtful when you’re putting a CD together and that balance.

How do you derive that?

Cedric Burnside: Well, I love acoustic music. That’s something I watched as a kid. I watched my big daddy all the time sitting on the porch playing the guitar. Some evenings when he’d get off the tractor, he would sit and play the guitar for 30 or 40 minutes before he’d get cleaned up and I would sit there and watch it. I would be one of my grandchildren sitting there and watching him and so, I always loved that style of music as well, just really stripped down, acoustic blues. But I also love to hear the drums. The drums makes it more hypnotic. So, the balance, it’s just-- it just comes when you least expect it. You can’t just get it in and look for it and wait on it. You’ve just got to let it come. That’s a great question.

Jo Reed: It’s hard. It’s a hard one. What I also love is that on the title track, “I Be Trying,” there’s the younger generation-- your daughter is singing with you and that must be so gratifying.

Cedric Burnside: Makes me so proud.

Jo Reed: Yeah. I can imagine.

Cedric Burnside: It made me so proud. She loves music. I have three daughters and my youngest daughter, Portrika, the one that’s on my album, she loves music. All of my daughters love music. My oldest daughter is Lashiya and my middle daughter is Corlilla. All of them love music, love to sing, but my youngest daughter, she walks around the house singing all the time. She’s in the shower singing all the time and I love it and so, a lot of times, we would sit around in the front room and I would pick up the guitar and just start playing and I would tell her to match the guitar, a tune, “Put your voice with the guitar,” and we would just do that for hours. We would come up with harmonies together for hours and I asked her did she want to do this song with me and of course, she loved it and just knowing that she wanted to do this song with me made me very proud. I thought she would and I’m glad to get the chance to do a song with my daughter.

Jo Reed: What is the difference for you between performing live, which you’re about to do, and recording in a studio?

Cedric Burnside: Well, I would say the difference between that is when I’m in the studio, I can go in any room and just sit there and think of things and write, which is all good. I love to write and I love to think about things, but when I’m on stage, it’s a different energy. I’m creating music in the studio, yes, and the energy is great, but when I take the music energy on stage and mix it with the crowd’s energy, wow, it’s really something. It’s something totally different. It’s really hard to explain because it takes me back and if I see people dancing to this music, that lets me know that they enjoy what I’m doing. They love what I’m doing and seeing them feed off my music, I feed off of them. I feed off their energy and it just makes it be this really big great thing, a great ball of energy and I love to see the looks on their face. They tell me they love it all the time and it makes it worth it. It makes it really worth it.

Jo Reed: Well, you tour a lot. How is life on the road for you? That can be tough.

Cedric Burnside: Yeah. I’m not going to say it’s not tough some days because it’s really tough. It’s definitely work in the sense when you have to travel to do it. Playing my music, it’s not work to me. It’s what I love. It definitely comes from my heart. There’s a lot of times I have to get up at four o’clock in the morning. There’s a lot of times where I have to be at the airport at four-thirty, five o’clock. So, it’s a lot of work. Sometimes I have to jump in the car and leave at five o’clock in the morning and drive to a place to do a show, but I love it. I’ve been doing it all my life, literally all my life.

Jo Reed: This is something I’m just really so curious about because this is Mississippi hill country blues and it comes from a particular place and I’m just so curious how we can hear that place in the music.

Cedric Burnside: Wow. That is a great question. I like that. But that’s very interesting. You can hear it, the sound of that music. It’s easy to pick up because it’s so unique. It’s so unique. It’s really easy to pick up when you’re playing it. The energy, a lot of people call it hypnotic. A lot of people say it puts you in a trance. But whatever it does, I’m glad to do it. I’m really glad to play it and put people in the trance. I hope it’s a really good energy that they feel.

Jo Reed: And then finally because I know you have to go-- you’ve won many awards. We’ve talked about a couple of them. Now, you’re an NEA National Heritage Fellow.

Cedric Burnside: Wow.
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Cedric Burnside: All right.
Jo Reed: If you can just tell me what that means for you...

Cedric Burnside: Before I tell you that, I have to be completely honest-- before I knew I won this award, like I didn’t know nothing about it. I had never heard of this award before in my life and it was such an

honor. When I look at this award, it’s like the biggest thing I can ever receive from anybody, from anything. It’s the highest honor in the nation for your music. I don't know what to say. I’m just so honored and just blown away that they chose me. That goes again with the universe. We’re going to keep on working.

Jo Reed: Well, the universe keeps saying yes.
Cedric Burnside: We’re going to keep on working.
Jo Reed: Cedric, thank you so much.
Cedric Burnside: Thank you.
Jo Reed: Truly, thank you for giving me your time. I really appreciate it. Cedric Burnside: You’re very welcome. Glad I can do it.

Jo Reed: That was Hill Country blues musician, songwriter and 2021 NEA National Heritage Fellow Cedric Burnside. His latest cd is I Be Tryin’. Cedric is one of the nine 2021 National Heritage Fellows. All the fellows are being celebrated in a film called The Culture of America. Actor Jimmy Smits hosts the virtual event which takes viewers on a trip across the country to the many places this year’s National Heritage Fellows live and work. The film streams on November 17 at 8 pm eastern at arts.gov. It’s a joyous moment you won’t want to miss. That’s November 17 at 8 pm eastern at arts.gov. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Stay Safe and thanks for listening.


Today, Hill Country blues musician, songwriter, and 2021 National Heritage Fellow Cedric Burnside talks about bringing his musical roots to the 21st century. Cedric Burnside has the blues in his bones: his father, uncles, and cousins all played. His grandfather was blues legend R.L. Burnside, known to Cedric as “Big Daddy.” Cedric essentially grew up in R.L.’s house, listening to the music, playing along at the regular house parties and at the local juke joint. Beginning his musical career as a drummer, by the age of 12 or so, he was backing R. L. on tours. A songwriter most of his life, he added guitar-playing to his musical repertoire and began a successful solo career. In this podcast, Burnside talks about his “really amazing, adrenaline-pumping little childhood,” his relationship with R.L., what makes Hill Country blues Hill Country blues, and his joy in bringing the music to the world.

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