Photo by Alex Koffler

When Cedric Burnside was 10, he began playing drums in a band led by his legendary grandfather, the late R.L. Burnside, whom he calls “Big Daddy.” Cedric and his uncle Garry Burnside, then a 12-year-old bass player, frequently played signature Hill Country blues music in North Mississippi juke joints, but, because they were children, they had to keep it quiet.

“The police used to come in the juke joints, and they would have to hide us behind the beer coolers,” Cedric said. “They fed us cheeseburgers, and when the police left, we jumped back behind the instruments and started jamming again.”

A musical prodigy, Cedric Burnside was 13 when he began touring all over the world with his grandfather. Years of musical dedication paid off, and this year, Burnside’s group, the Cedric Burnside Project, was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Blues Album category for their album “Descendants of Hill Country.”

The album features Cedric Burnside on drums, acoustic guitar and vocals, and Trenton Ayers on guitar and vocals. Ayers is the son of guitarist Earl “Little Joe” Ayers, who played with a band led by Junior Kimbrough, one of the progenitors of Hill Country blues.
Cedric Burnside was unexpectedly born in Memphis.

“My mom was actually on her way home back to Mississippi, and her water broke with me,” he said. “I was born in Shelby County, and they brought me on to Mississippi.”

Growing up in Holly Springs, he spent much of his time listening to his grandfather, R.L. Burnside, and father, drummer Calvin Jackson, play music at weekend house parties. Cedric knew he wanted to follow their lead, and he did at age 6. At 13, he went on his first music tour with his “Big Daddy” to Toronto, Canada.

“I had only played at juke joints my whole life,” he said. “I had never been to another town or another country to play music. I went there, and I had butterflies in my stomach, but my Big Daddy would always give me encouragement. He said, ‘Just do what you do in the juke joint.’ I just did what I know. After the first song, the people really liked it. I haven’t had any more butterflies since then. They all went out the window.”

Burnside attended school through seventh grade in Holly Springs. Then, teachers would tutor him when possible; sometimes, he took schoolwork on the road.

“I was very young, and I kind of wish I could have gotten a little more education before I hit the road,” he said. “But I’m also glad, because (touring) was a beautiful experience. The places I was learning about in school, I was actually going to those places. I got to see the Colosseum in Rome. I went to Paris. It was like 12 years of schooling at once.”

One of his favorite locations was Australia. He has visited three times, performing in Sydney, Melbourne and Byron Bay, and he’s performed in Japan, France, Italy, Norway and Denmark. Wherever he goes, he said, Hill Country blues is unique, and people respond well to the “hypnotic” sound.

“The rhythm is very unorthodox, and it’s also very comforting and warm to listen to,” he said. “I’m just really glad that people enjoy it so much, and that we can create more Hill Country blues and play the classics like Big Daddy and Junior Kimbrough did. As long as I’m loving it, I want to try to keep their music alive and write my own music so people will know where I got it from.”

Cedric also has played and recorded with many artists, including Kimbrough, Kenny Brown, North Mississippi Allstars, Burnside Exploration, Widespread Panic, Jimmy Buffett, T-Model Ford, Bobby Rush, Honey Boy Edwards, Galactic, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears and The John Spencer Blues Explosion.

In 2006, he was featured in the film “Black Snake Moan,” playing drums alongside actor Samuel L. Jackson. According to Cedric’s website, the film is a tribute to R. L. Burnside. In 2010, Cedric collaborated with his younger brother, Cody Burnside, and his uncle, Garry Burnside, to create the Cedric Burnside Project. This was a new genre of music, infusing Mississippi Hill Country blues, funk, R&B and soul.

Water Valley resident Amos Harvey produced Cedric Burnside’s recent Grammy-nominated album. He and Cedric go back to the performer’s early juke joint days, and Amos traveled with him many years as tour manager.

“I knew if anybody knew our sound, it would be Amos,” Cedric said. “I gave him a call to see if he had any time to go into the studio with us. We went in the studio, and we recorded a CD in three days. It turned out to be pretty awesome.”

Cedric said the album was produced quickly because he likes to have everything organized before he goes into a studio, and he wanted the music to have the raw sound that defines Hill Country blues.

“Amos is an amazing person,” Cedric said. “He always brings a beautiful energy to the table. The dirty raw sound of Mississippi’s Hill Country is what we represent, and Amos knows that because he’s been listening to it all his life. He did not let me down.”

Amos, 45, is a music tour manager and producer, who also works with the Rev. John Wilkins, a Memphis resident who performs Hill Country blues. Amos met Cedric 20 years ago at Junior’s Juke Joint in Holly Springs.

“When we came up to the door, I could hear the music pumping through, and it sounded great,” he said. “Once I got in, I couldn’t really see who was playing first. I kind of worked my way back through the crowd, and I saw Cedric back there playing the drums and R.L. on the guitar. That’s when I first saw him, and it was amazing. He was such a strong drummer and comfortable. He had a big smile on his face.”
Harvey later began touring with Cedric and other artists who were part of the Fat Possom Records label.

“We kind of grew up together,” Amos said. “I was in my 20s, and he was 13 or so. He was raised by his grandfather on the road. He really turned out to be a great, respectful guy. During that whole time, he was becoming a better drummer.”

As the tour manager, Amos was responsible for acquiring contracts from booking agents, organizing travel and transportation and scheduling public relations opportunities.

“We went all over the world — all over the United States,” he said. “Basically, he was a world traveler at 13 and 14 years old, and I think that helped shape him as an adult, as well as the love R.L. gave him.

“He respected the music that he learned growing up so much and emanated it well. It’s a rare thing for a youngster to be able to recognize how important the work that he is doing is. That’s just another thing that makes Cedric a special person. He wants to keep this thing going, and it’s basically where he came from. He doesn’t get too far from that. It’s definitely North Mississippi Hill Country style. It’s not like Delta blues. It’s not like Chicago blues. It’s Hill Country blues.”

Named after the hilly region in North Mississippi, Hill Country blues has a distinct driving beat and groove.
“If you’re not moved by their music at least with your hips, it’s almost like you’re dead,” he said. “A lot of his lyrics, especially with this album, are very much about things that mean a lot to him, which are home and family.

“I grew up working with this music. He grew up making this music. We knew this was great music from the beginning, but to be recognized by the industry, especially by the Grammys, it felt great. It felt pretty dang good to get up there with Buddy Guy and the others in the running.”

Guy took home the Best Blues Album category win during the Feb. 15 televised awards show in Los Angeles, beating out albums by the Cedric Burnside Project, as well as Shemekia Copeland, Bettye LaVette and one by John Primer and various artists called “Muddy Waters 100.”

Amos produced Cedric’s Grammy-nominated album and helped mix it with engineer Scott Bomar of Electraphonic Recording in Memphis.

“I was thrilled and honored to be asked,” he said. “I knew while we were working and while they were recording, it was something special.”

Amos’ wife, artist Coulter Fussell who owns Yalo Studio in Water Valley, designed the album cover using a profile photograph of Cedric taken by Oxford photographer Mike Stanton.

“The biggest thing about this whole deal is it feels good to represent North Mississippi and Mississippi in a positive light,” Amos said.
Cedric said they wanted “Descendants of Hill Country” to be about the origin of Hill Country blues, paying homage to Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside.

“We wanted to show the people what we learned on this journey growing up from blues boys to blues men,” he said.

According to his bio, Cedric is a five-time Blues Music Association Award winner. He has won Best New Artist, has four wins for Drummer of the Year and is widely regarded as one of the best drummers in the world. This also isn’t his first Grammy nomination. R.L. Burnside was nominated for a Grammy in 2003 for the album “Burnside on Burnside,” on which Cedric performed; but it was the first time he was nominated on his own.

“We were in a category of 300 people,” Cedric said. “They picked five, and we were one of the five. I know I worked hard to get here, but it’s also kind of mind-blowing to be nominated for a Grammy. It’s been a beautiful journey.”

After returning home from Grammy week in Los Angeles, a grateful Cedric addressed his fans on social media:

“I want to thank everyone for the well-wishes for our Grammy experience last week,” he said. “We are back on the road today, doing what we love — playing the music that comes from the hills of North Mississippi. We would do it at the Grammys or on our front porch or anywhere in between.

“Congratulations to Mr. Buddy Guy on his win, because the truth is, legends like him paved the way for us youngsters. Maybe we will be up for that golden trophy again. Maybe not. But we are still the most blessed men in the world because we get to play our songs to your smiling faces every night.”