‘Ain’t Gonna Take No Mess’
‘Ain’t Gonna Take No Mess’
A Q&A with Cedric Burnside
By Geoff Gehman
Cedric Burnside came to Brooklyn to play a YouTube show and stayed to make a musical autobiography. The drumming, singing guitarist was so comfortable jamming with Brian Jay, the multi-instrumental host/producer of “Jammin’ with J,” he spent two days recording two dozen tracks with Jay in the latter’s Williamsburg studio. The songs formed the foundation of Burnside’s new album, “Benton County Relic” (Single Lock), an authentic portrait of love, lust, loss and the riches of growing up poor.
Named for Burnside’s home turf in northern Mississippi, “Benton County Relic” is branded with Hill Country blues: repetitive and raw; oddly measured and roughly hypnotic; chicken wire cloaked in velvet. Burnside’s voice is stabbing and soothing, his guitar perky and prickly, his attitude rollicking and rocking chair. Jay adds scratching, searching drums and engineers a distant, slightly hollow, glowing-tube atmosphere. There’s a taste of the juke joints where an under-age Burnside drummed behind his grandfather, R.L. Burnside, the singing guitarist and Hill Country blues steward. It was R.L. who raised Cedric in his home, in local venues and in European halls in bands featuring the renowned guitarists Junior Kimbrough and Kenny Brown. Cedric honors his life coach, his “Big Daddy.” in “Death Bell Blues,” a calling card for R.L., Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins. He rings the bell for his blues bloodline in his own “Ain’t Gonna Take No Mess.”
On Nov. 16 the Mauch Chunk Opera House will host a performance by Jay, a member of the Pimps of Joytime, and Burnside, an award-winning drummer whose namesake Project received a 2015 Grammy nomination for the album “Descendants of Hill Country.” Below, in a conversation from his native Beacon County, Burnside, 40, discusses the rhythmic lessons of Big Daddy’s stomping feet, dodging juke-joint cops, his young affair with writing songs on guitar, and his goal to make just one album that will make the world love more and hate less. .
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that turned you upside down and inside out?
A: Oh yeah, definitely. The first one was “[That] Old Black Magic.” I was five or six years old when I first heard it. My “Big Daddy” [grandfather R.L. Burnside] used to practice it all the time at house parties. I heard it so many times when he played alone on the porch. That actually was one of the first songs I learned from my Big Daddy on the guitar. I still play it to this day; it still throws me.
Q: Did you know Brian Jay before he asked you to join him on his YouTube program “Jammin’ with J”? And what made you comfortable enough with him to jump from “Jammin’ with J” to cutting a record with him?
A: Brian actually came to one of my shows maybe two or three years ago when me and Lightnin’ Malcolm were playing. He shook my hand and said he actually listened to me and my Big Daddy during a couple live shows. He told me that for a long time he’d be wantin’ to meet me and wantin’ to collaborate with me. It took a couple of years after that for us to get together. Brian invited me up to do the little thing on YouTube in his studio and it didn’t take us more than 15 or 20 minutes to record that little scene. When we got done I got my music out and I was showing him how to play some of my stuff and he went to playing drums behind me and, man, the chemistry was great. I was wondering to myself: How is he catching the beat because the [Hill Country] rhythms are so unorthodox. Somehow he just got it. So we kept playing and before you know it in two days we had recorded 26 tracks. The universe was with us.
Q: What were Brian’s biggest contributions to “Benton County Relic”? Did he take you in some major new directions?
A: One thing that so impressed me was his drumming. I was surprised that he could catch that kind of music right from the start, playing with me for the first time. Brian is a great all-around musician: guitar, bass, drums–you name it, he can play it. He listened very carefully to what we recorded and he asked me what I liked and didn’t like. He did a great job as engineer and producer; for the most part he was spot on. I’m so happy to make this album and happy to have him be a part of it; for me it was a beautiful thing.
Q: The new album has songs all over the map. You sing about hauling water three miles when you were a kid and dealing with the deaths of loved ones so close apart, embracing sexual pleasure and embracing your responsibility as a dad. Did you set out to make a musical autobiography?
A: I did. I’ve gone through different cycles of my life since I’ve been in this world, so those songs represent something of everything I went through. I really put those songs out to let people hear what my life is like, that it’s not all peaches and cream. I’m hoping that people who have done some of the things that I’ve done can relate. I think everybody in the world can relate to the message in “Hard to Stay Cool.” I think people can relate to the song about my daughters [“Call on Me”] and the song about sexual pleasure [“Give It to You”]. I know some people say, “Oh, man, why would you put that [erotic] song out there?” Well, that was my life at one point and I just want to be honest about it. I wanted to keep it real, which is why I had to write the song “We Made It.” I want people to know that I grew up with no running water, no toilet, no bath rub, and I still came out okay.
Q: Why did you pick “Death Bell Blues” to pay tribute to R.L Burnside., your childhood guardian, your band leader, your “Big Daddy”?
A: That’s one of the songs I used to love to hear my Big Daddy play. It’s very deep and very hypnotic and dirty and mean at times [laughs]. I play it the way he played it– harsh and unique and authentic. I love authentic: that’s a big part of what my life is. I put a tribute song to my Big Daddy every time I record a CD. It don’t matter who I record with, myself or anybody else, I have to show my bloodline.
Q: Band members, especially those playing with each other for the first time, usually adjust on the fly by watching the lead guitarist’s hands. As a young drummer you often adjusted on the fly by watching the stomping of R.L. and Junior Kimbrough, his fellow Hill Country guitarist and juke-joint proprietor. What did that stomping teach you about drumming; what did their feet teach your feet and hands?
A: When I was younger I always watched them stomp their feet and wondered: What are they doing? When I got of age I realized that, yeah, that’s how you keep time.
You know, I wasn’t playing much guitar back when I was playing with my Big Daddy. Playing guitar became my newfound love about six or seven years ago. Now I love to write songs on the guitar. I can’t wait to write some more for people to share and hopefully relate.
Q: What’s your favorite, juiciest story about being an under-age drummer, backing up R.L. in Mississippi juke joints?
A: I was 10, 11 years old and playing with my uncle [bassist] Gary [Burnside], who was 12 or 13 at the time. We were in the backup band and we played a lot because sometimes the bass player or drummer didn’t show up. The cops would come in to inspect the joints and [the older musicians] would hide us behind the beer cooler until the cops left because, you know, they wouldn’t have a band if we got sent home [laughs]. The cops never caught us, which is amazing to me. It was such a great experience, even though we weren’t supposed to be there. It was beautiful to play that long at the most influential juke joints in Mississippi, most of the time with my Big Daddy. I wouldn’t change it for nothin’ in the world.
Q: And what’s your most memorable memory of drumming in the movie “Black Snake Moan’ in a band with Samuel L. Jackson playing a Big Daddy-style character?
A: Oh man, I have to say that spending three to four weeks shooting with him was a really, really great experience. Samuel L. Jackson is a funny dude with a good heart, a great guy. He was shooting another movie and he would fly to California and do what he had to do there, then he would come back and [guitarist] Kenny [Brown] would teach him a few licks on guitar and I would teach him how to sing and structure a song–because he didn’t know how to sing. nor did he know bow to play guitar. Because he’s a great actor he picked it all up like it wasn’t nothin’. That was pretty amazing; that was beautiful.
Q: So, Cedric, what tops your Bucket List?
A: To make that one album that reaches the whole world and I’m not talking about parts of the world where I’m now or where I’ve played. I want my music to make people feel loved, to feel nothing but good love, especially if they’re down and out. A second thing I want to do is visit Africa because I know this music is descended from Africa. When I play guitar and even drums people tell me, man, that sounds so African.
Q: And what tops your Fuckit List?
A: Well, I have to say hate. There’s a lot of hate going on in the world and I’m not a big fan of it. Since I’ve been here on the earth I’ve been tryin’ to do right. I haven’t always lived right and there have been times when I didn’t know whether I was doing right or wrong, and there have been times when I’ve been bitter, but I always had the Lord in my heart. Now I know that some people think the blues is devil’s music but I think the energy you play your music with determines whether it’s the devil’s music or not. I just play music with love. That’s one of the main reasons I want to make that one album that touches everybody. I hope that in doing so people rethink their mind when it comes down to hate. Hate’s just not right with me.
Q: You wrote “Call on Me” as a promise to help your three daughters. What do they think of your musical vow?
A: My daughters really like it because they’re some of my biggest fans [laughs]. You can’t be more honest than kids; they let you know right off the bat what they think; they don’t worry about hurting your feelings. When they say, “You need to work on that more,” I know I have to do my homework. They like my songs. They love music so much. They all sing; they piddle around on guitar. They do a lot of other things—basketball, volleyball—but music is definitely part of their soul
Cedric Burnside: The Scoop
He conducted the above interview from a cell phone near a church near his home, the better to get better reception.
His Cedric Burnside Project includes guitarist and longtime friend Trenton Ayers, whose bassist father (Little) Joe Ayers played with Junior Kimbrough, Burnside’s partner in a band led by his grandfather, R.L. “Big Daddy” Burnside.
He’s drummed with everyone from Jimmy Buffett to Widespread Panic.
One of his favorite Hill Country venues is the Foxfire Ranch in Waterford, Miss., named for local glowing moss. Burnside is regarded as a ranch relation because he christened the indoor/outdoor joint with Lightnin’ Malcolm, his collaborator on the 2007-2008 albums “Juke Joint Duo” and “Two Man Wrecking Crew.”
He’s particularly popular in the Netherlands, home of his late drumming father, Calvin Jackson, his predecessor in a R.L. Burnside group that toured the Netherlands.
His other goals range from learning more guitar chords and keys to opening a music school. “I have gone to colleges and high schools and talked to professors and kids about why Hill Country blues is so unique. I went over to France a few years ago and I happened to play for this high school. I didn’t really think at first that they knew much about Hill Country blues; I thought what they were interested in was something their teachers told them they had to know. So I was amazed that they knew who Big Daddy was and they knew who Junior [Kimbrough] was: some of them were even playing their songs. They were interested in knowing how I came up in Hill Country blues and why I still played them. That just lets me know that my kind of blues is still good and touches a lot of people, including young ones.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He digs all sorts of relics: musical, architectural, human. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.