Jonny Meister interviews Cedric Burnside, August 19, 2012, at the Philadelphia Fok Festival. Note: Cedric Burnside’s brother Cody Burnside, mentioned in this conversation, died at age 29 in October two months after this interview was recorded.
Jonny Meister: Cedric, it’s great talking to you.
Cedric Burnside: Hey, man, good to be here, good to be here
J: You play both drums and guitar and I wanted to ask you, which one came first, and do your styles on each instrument kind of relate to each other?
C: Well, yes, and drums came first to me, you know, watching my granddad do house parties, you know, on the front porch, and just sittin’ there watching him, you know, inspired me to jump on the drums, watching him and my dad jam, so, yeah, drums was definitely my first instrument.
J: and when did you pick up guitar?
C: I started playing guitar about twelve years ago, ah, you know I just started writing songs, maybe six, seven years ago, on the guitar, ah, and over the years of playing guitar, I wrote a few songs of my own, and, you know, was able to go into the studio and record and make a CD – – working on a second one as well.
J: Now your granddad, of course the late and great R. L. Burnside . . .
C: Yeah, Mr. R. L.
J: he had a lot of kids; which one was your dad?
C: My dad was Calvin Jackson, but my grandfather’s daughter was my mother.
C: Yeah, Linda… Linda Jackson. Yeah… by marriage. Linda Burnside, now Linda Burnside Jackson.
J: So were you born Jackson and then changed it?
C: Now, I was born Burnside
C: ’cause my mom and dad, you know, they wasn’t married when I was born. So I was a Burnside.
J: So who actually taught you, your dad, your granddad, other people?
C: Well, my dad, you know, he wasn’t really around too much – – won’t get into that much – – but my granddad, you know, I’ve been around my granddad all my life, you know, from six, seven years old till I was old enough to move out of the house on my own, you know, that’s how long I stayed with my granddad. And you know, I have to say my granddad taught me just about everything I know. You know, from packing my bags, you know, from playing music to how to live in life. You know?
J: That’s pretty impressive.
C: Oh yeah. Miss him a lot, man.
J: I remember your granddad, R. L. Burnside, telling a story about Chicago.
J: like many, many Southern African-Americans, he made the trip from Mississippi to Chicago, but he came back.
J: He didn’t last in Chicago
C: Yeah, well, a lot happened in Chicago. I wasn’t there, you know, I can’t really speak on it, but from the stories he tell me, you know, it was, you know, kind of crazy stories, and you know, plus scary, all at the same time, so I can understand why he, you know, came back to Mississippi.
J: He said that his father was killed there.
C: Yeah, his father and one of his uncles, and one of his brothers as well
C: So, yeah, there’s a story behind why he don’t want to, you know, go back.
J: Yeah… let’s talk a little bit about working in the music world. I know for many years when his career started, he was working in other jobs; he did fishing, he did other kinds of work
J: Have you been able to make music a full-time job for you?
C: Ah, well, I have, you know, I have to say thanks to God and my grandfather Mr. R. L., you know, made me the man I am today. I love the blues; I grew up in the blues. It’s in my blood. You know, my granddad taught me well, and I just want to keep it going, you know and I don’t want to let it go. You know my granddad, he sharecropped for a long time, and he did it for food and shelter. You know, he didn’t get paid money. He went ot there; he got on the tractor all day every day. He plowed the garden, you know, crops growed, and he went out there and got the crops. Every time it come time to harvest the crops and get ’em, the landlord would split half of the crops with, between him and my granddaddy. That was the pay for staying in the old, little four-room shack house, you know, that the landlord let my granddad stay in, you know. So, in return for food and shelter, my granddad worked for him, and, you know, growed the food and they split it up when it was time to go out and get the crops.
J: Do you remember when his music career took off and lifted him out of that life?
C: Ah, it started, he gradually started goin’ out, I guess I was about ten years old, ’bout ’88, ’89, you know, when he started going out on tours, you know, and as a solo artist, and I guess people were kind of getting the grasp of the hill country blues. But, you know he really started getting his recognition, late ’94, early ’95, when people started really grasping a good part of the hill country blues, and knowing my granddad was a big part of it, of the hill country. So he started getting his recognition like he should, you know, in late ’94, ’95, yeah, right before he got ill.
J: Now he took some traditional blues and they kind of rocked it up; he worked with Jon Spencer
C: Oh yeah, yeah
J: producer Tom Rothrock – – you also bring some new elements into the blues; you bring some hiphop in, and I know that’s controversial with blues fans. Some of them love it –
C: and some of them don’t! Exactly… right
J; How do you deal with that?
C: Well, you know, it is what it is. People like they own little style of music; some people like all styles of music, you know, but the CD I recorded last year, “The Way I Am,” it was something just for – – I was trying to get something for the young and the old. You know, I’m a blues man; my heart is the blues. But I dibble and dabble in a little other music. I listen to a little funkadelic, a little hiphop, every now and then, and, due to my brother Cody Burnside being a rapper, I decided to do something, you know, a few songs with him on the new CD. And some people love it, you know, some people would prefer just the blues, you know? Like I said, it was just something trying out for the first time to give a little bit on the young and the old, you know, something to listen to.
J: You also have a wonderful singer on one of the songs
J: Eudora Evans
C: Yeah, Eudora Evans from New Orleans, uh-huh. Actually, it’s funny how that came up, man. My manager, Eleanor Johnson, she was out listening to music one night, and she just happened to be at one of Eudora’s shows and heard her sing – – and I needed a background singer, I was like, man, this would be awesome if I had a awesome, you know, woman vocalist on it. You know, and she just happened to get Eudora’s number and they exchanged numbers, and she called her up and she came right there the next day, man, and sung the part for us, you know?
J: Sounds great too.
C: Two takes and we got it.
J: Now that album’s called “The Way I Am”
C: The Way I Am
J: but you did one before it, The Burnside Exploration album. And your uncle Garry was on that…
C: Yeah Uncle Gary; it’s been many years ago. He helped me, he actually helped me do a few songs on “The Way I Am” as well.
J: And you also worked with Lightnin’ Malcolm
J: and you were part of that Robert Johnson Centennial album.
C: Oh yeah.
J: Tell me about that.
A: I have to say first of all it was a awesome time gettin’ to spend time with Mr. Hubert Sumlin, and Mr. Honeyboy Edwards.
J: Yeah, both have passed since then.
C: and Mr. James Cotton, you know, and just sittin’, talkin’ to those guys, you know, just made me, you know, my head was like gassed up, because, you know, just sittin’ talkin’ to two legends that was actually, you know, with the late, great Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, you know, Robert Johnson, you know, those the guys I wish I could have met, you know, I love that music. So that was, you know, a tremendous honor for me, and also meeting, you know, Big Head Todd and The Monsters, you know those some cool guys too, as well – – first time meeting them, but it was awesome.
J: Was Robert Johnson really part of your young education with the blues? I mean . . . People really know him in Mississippi?
C: Well, oh… (laughs)
J: I’m mean, no, seriously, because he was so unknown during his life.
C: Yeah, they know him very well, especially in Mississippi, you know. I wouldn’t say everybody know who Robert Johnson is, ’cause I don’t think everybody do. But I was one of, you know, many grandkids that my grandad played Robert Johnson all the time, you know
C: Robert Johnson, you know Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, my grandad played that music all the time, you know . . . uh, Jimmy Reed, we was listening to all that style of music, you know, just about every day we wake up. (Laughs) and what that man said, we just, you know, that music became a tradition for us to play, now. I even play some of that music now for my kids, you know; my babies, 13, 9, and 7, they love the old blues, you know?
J: Another generation of Burnsides…
C: all girls, yeah!
J: The Burnside Sisters!
J: I’m waitin’, I’m waitin’
C: and they love music, you know?
J: Where does it go from here? You still live in Mississippi.
C: I do
J: You’ve never left. You didn’t go to Chicago, or anywhere else.
C: Oh no.
J: But, you’ve traveled around the world, haven’t you?
C: I’ve been all over, man.
J: Where have you been?
C: Thank God for everything. Just got back from Europe, ah, last week, so I been home for about eight days now, ah, did Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Hungary. Yeah, and made it back on August 10th.
J: ‘Cause this was the same story with your grandfather. They loved him overseas, and in this country they didn’t know who he was
C: Oh yeah
J: until finally they got the word.
C: Yeah, they gettin’ a whiff of it now.
J: So you have a big following overseas too.
C: Oh yeah, yeah.
J: What’s up next? What’s your next project?
C: Well, you know, just workin’ on a new CD in the studio, um, all new songs, uh, you know, songs and music that we wrote, and just to keep pushin’, you know? I try to keep this music goin’ , keep new hill country music, you know, pumpin’ out there, and, you know, not to let it go, and let people to remember – – not forget, you know. That’s my next thing, you know, just keep it pushin’.
J: Anything else you want to add?
C: Well, look forward to the new CD; don’t have the name for it yet but I have it pretty soon. But, hopefully, next couple of months, you know, go to the website, www. cedricburnside.com, or go to the Facebook, hit me up on email, all that stuff man, and look forward to the new CD, ’cause it’s coming.
J: Sounds great. Just one other thing I wanted to ask.
J: and that was that your grandfather once said that he had been in Parchman.
J: I never knew exactly why; it all sounded so corrupt, you know, you could get there because you really committed a crime or because you looked at someone funny, and you could get out if you had a friend
J: with some money or some influence; he was in for about half a year.
C: Yeah, my grandad, you know, it’s never fun for nobody to lose their life, you know, there’s nothin’ funny about it, but you know, my grandad, you know, he had a little incident, and he shot a guy and killed a guy, you know, the guy was trying to kill him, so it was self-defense, but he still went to prison for it. Due to he was a good worker, you know, and the guy that he worked for at the time, you know, he was a pretty big dude, you know, he had money and he knew police and, you know, judges and stuff there, and was able to get my grandad’s time cut down, you know, ’cause he was a good worker, you know? So, at least that was the story my grandad told me.
C: So, you know, with that being said, I’m glad his time was cut down, and, you know, he was able to do his thing, and play this blues and keep it going for people to love, you know?
J: Well, a lot of great bluesmen did some time in Parchman, but I hope that you will never be one of them.
C: Well, yeah, me too! I’m right with ya’! I agree!
J: Cedric, thanks so much for talking with me.
C: You’re welcome, man. Good to do it.