Cedric Burnside reveals more of himself on 'Benton County Relic'

Joel Oliphint

When Cedric Burnsidesings about being born into the world as a touring, Mississippi Hill country blues musician, he means it quite literally.

For starters, it runs in the family: Burnside’s father was blues drummer Calvin Jackson, and his grandfather — the man Cedric calls “Big Daddy” — was famed blues singer/guitarist R.L. Burnside. And on the day Cedric entered this world, he was baptized into a life on the road.

“My mom was pregnant with me, and they was on the way back [home] to Mississippi when her water broke,” Burnside said during a recent phone call. “She didn't make it back home, so she had to stop in Memphis at this little little clinic. And that's where I was born. I was born in that clinic. I was born on the road. My whole life, I've been on the road.”

Of course, these days, the pandemic is preventing Burnside and other musicians from touring. Instead, many artists are playing gigs from home and streaming them to the world, which is what Burnside will do on Friday, Aug. 21, as part of the Virtual Nelsonville Music Festival, which runs through Saturday and features Caamp, Lydia Loveless, Hot Tuna, snarls, Joan Shelley and more (sets will be streamed from the Stuart’s Opera House YouTube channel).

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It’s not an ideal setup for a man who was born on the road (and who’s admittedly not tech savvy), but it’s better than nothing. “To be honest, I don't like it myself, but I know that's the way we have to do it these days,” Burnside said. “You got to kind of humble yourself.”

There’s a refrain from the bluesman’s most recent album, 2018’sBenton County Relic, that has rang especially true over the past few months: “Life can be so easy/Life can be so hard.” “I’ve heard that quoted several times now in this pandemic, and it definitely fits. … Some of those lines hit differently these days,” Burnside said. “It makes me proud that I wrote that song, because I know now it's relevant to a lot of situations, this being one of them. In my mind, when I first wrote that song, it was due to some problems that I went through with family and friends that grew up in the wrong way. But now it takes on a totally different meaning.”

Benton County Relic was a breakout album for Burnside, who had been collaborating with other musicians for years, often from behind a drum kit. But this record, which garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album, highlights Burnside’s own voice and his own guitar playing. “What was so special about this album is it gave me a chance to let people see more of me — more of the songs that I can create, more of the style that normally I do,” he said. “It gave people the chance to see Cedric Burnside and Cedric Burnside only.”

Fortunately, right before the pandemic shut things down in the States, Burnside also recorded a new album with the legendary Boo Mitchell at Royal Studios in Memphis, so fans of Mississippi Hill country blues can expect to hear new music from Burnside later this year.

In any of his endeavors — in the studio, on the road, in a livestream — Burnside takes lessons from his father and grandfather along with him, and the words that stick with him most are the ones that aren’t even specific to music.

“[My grandfather] taught me to treat people like I want to be treated. That's something he used to say all the time. … I try to do it more and more every day,” Burnside said. “And he always told me to never give up on what I'm doing. Because there was times where I was discouraged in music. There were times I wanted to stop, quit. And he always told me, ‘Don't ever give up. I don't care what nobody say. If it's something that you really want, then you push hard for it, regardless of people saying it's not good or they don't like it. You still do it because that's what you want to do.'”

Virtual Nelsonville Music Festival

8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 21 and Saturday, Aug. 22


Cedric Burnside