The blues has always been about regionalism. While feeling, intent, and themes consistently overlap the form, there's no denying the particular impact of an artist's surroundings. Forceful Chicago blues will never be mistaken for gritty Texas blues, just as the breezy West Coast blues style stands alone from the rollin' and tumblin' nature of the Mississippi Delta blues.
Then there's the Mississippi hill country blues.
"It's a very rare music," says Cedric Burnside, whose grandfather, R.L. Burnside, brought widespread attention to the dark, rumbling, and hypnotic musical form of chugging rhythms, stinging guitar licks, and singing that shifts from mumbling whispers to howling shouts.
"The sound is a little unorthodox," Burnside adds. "It ain't no 12-bar blues or no 16-bar blues. I like to call it 'feel' music. [It has] different changes and different rhythms."
But it almost seemed the musical style didn't exist for decades. It remained isolated in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where the "heel-stompin', hypnotic music" brewed on back porches and in juke joints. The right face was needed to expose the sound to a wider audience — and the rumpled, overall-clad, gray-haired R.L. Burnside was just the one — despite the earlier popularity of artists including Mississippi Fred McDowell and Junior Kimbrough, who failed to have a significant impact.
"It was around the late-1990s when people dabbling into country blues wanted to know what style of music this was and where it came from. I'm glad it's getting recognition now. It's been a long time coming."
As the Burnside name now carries significant weight, the guitarist and drummer aims to carry on the musical traditions of those who came before him.
"It's very hard to walk in my big daddy's shoes. They're big shoes to fill," he says of R.L. "I got it from him and have to keep his music alive, but he also instilled in me to write my own music as well. Everything I write is based on hill country. It might sound a little modern because I'm a little modern, but as far as keeping the hill country blues alive, I'm going to keep that tradition alive. I'm going to do that until the day I die."
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Burnside isn't the only artist keeping the tradition alive. The guitar/drums combo that the Cedric Burnside Project presents is the quintessential Mississippi hill country formula, one also put to use by the White Stripes and, more closely related, the Black Keys — particularly during the Ohio band's formative years.
"I see more and more people doing the two-piece thing in the hill country style, which makes me really happy," Burnside says, offering his approval of the Black Keys. "That is a hill country thing. People, once they understand it, they love it and want to hear it everywhere. Of course, we've found a way to perfect it."
Burnside's latest album, Descendants of Hill Country, features two R.L. classics and 11 originals that, as the name implies, rely heavily on regional legacy infusing the music. Coming to Phoenix with guitarist Trenton Ayers (also sporting a deep musical legacy; his father was Kimbrough's bassist), Burnside typically opens his concerts with a powerful, at moments haunting, solo acoustic guitar set before settling in behind the kit. This way, he says, an audience can discover his songwriting in the more intense Mississippi manner in which the songs were birthed.
"It's raw. It's very raw," Burnside says with a laugh. "But I think it's very good. The audience seems to think so, too."