From That Day to This Day: Cedric Burnside & Lightnin' Malcolm Talk About Finding (and Living with)

By Mike Mellor
December 2009

When people love something they always have a story about when and how they found it. I'll never forget the day I first read Bukowski's “Dinosauria, We” or the day I picked my favorite shirt off of a fence in Somerville. I'll never forget when I fell in love with the blues.

Neither will Lightnin' Malcolm; in fact our experience was essentially the same (as described below). I didn't take the love anywhere but to my dome, but Malcolm took it and decided to become a teenage juke joint troubadour, where he met R.L. Burnside and, eventually, his grandson Cedric.

Cedric clearly had a different experience, having practically been breast fed a very distinct style of music since birth, but that doesn't mean his enthusiasm for it is any less. On tour promoting their new album 2 Man Wrecking Crew, they took my call on their bus to talk about their young lives and how their love of music and family have brought them to where they are now.

Mike Mellor: So Malcolm, you're from Burgess, MO, right?

Lightnin’ Malcolm: Yeah, way out in the woods.

MM: How did you encounter the North Mississippi music and your other influences?

LM: Well, Muddy Waters was the first music I heard that I really liked. I was about ten. I started playing it and then about '92 or '93 I was down in Clarksdale, MS. I just left home, traveled, played a little shows and I met R.L. Burnside in Clarksdale, and I thought he was great, man. And you know, pretty soon, next time I saw him Cedric was with him, so we met through his granddaddy. I was really introduced to the hill country music through RL Burnside, right there in Clarksdale.

MM: This was about '92 or '93?

LM: Yeah, I was about 17, 18 years old. I had already been playing the blues for about eight years, but I hadn't really, you know, run up on that. I was playing, like, John Lee Hooker style, which is very close, but there are a few little things that make what you're talking about, the hill country blues, a little bit different.

MM: Where did you hear Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and all that?

LM: I just got lucky, I think. You know, there weren't too many people in my vicinity listening to that. But I just run up on some people listening to Muddy Waters at a party, I went and looked at the case. They didn't even play it that long, just long enough for me to hear the song and say, “Who is that?” I looked at the cover and, you know, he just looked so good on the cover, you know, so classy and dignified, and you know that song, (sings a few notes)…

MM: “Mannish Boy?”

LM: Yeah, “Mannish Boy”. I almost blew the speakers up, I turned it so loud. You know, “What's wrong with that boy?” And from that day on I just loved it, I got some of his records and found about some other guys, like Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker.

MM: The same thing happened to me, man. I turned on the radio when I was 11 and I heard Muddy Waters and it just blew my mind.

LM: Hey, we had the same thing, because that's what did it to me, and that's been my life from that day to this day.

MM: Yeah, I know the feeling. Is Cedric there?

Cedric Burnside: Yeah, man.

MM: Hey, how are you? This is a question for you. It's pretty obvious where your blues roots come from, but when you were a kid what other music were you listening to?

CB: Well, just grown' up as a kid, maybe around 5,6,7 years old…you know for a while there we didn't even have a radio so the first music I ever heard was my granddad playing music. You know, out on the porch, throwing the house parties every weekend. So that's the first music that I grew up listening to but I started liking a little rap. I used to listen to LL Cool J, (pauses) and a little Twista.

MM: Did you hear it on the radio, or…?

CB: Yeah, I heard some of it on the radio, and then some of it I went and bought CDs. I bought a little bit of Snoop Doggy Dog and Tupac, (Malcolm says something inaudible in the background). Yeah, I had quite a good collection of hip hop.

MM: I hear a lot of jazz influences in your drumming, too. Where'd you pick that up?

CB: Yeah? You know, I get that, man. People say they hear a lot of jazz in my drumming, but I don't really listen to any jazz and I really haven't listened to any jazz drummers. I listened to some drummers, you know, like Buddy Rich and a little bit of Max Roach.

MM: I was just about to say Max Roach.

CB: Yeah, I used to listen to him a little bit, you know, but I never really just sat down and listened to any drummers all day on CD or anything like that. I just kind of looked and learned. I say all the time, growing up as a kid I wanted to play in band but my school was so poor we didn't even have band. So I just had to beat on buckets and stuff like that, driving my mom and them crazy, and you know, over the years I looked at some of my friends that played drums and older cats and just looked and learned. That was it.

MM: You always knew you wanted to play them, since you were a little kid?

CB: Yeah, when I saw drums, man, I was so fascinated and shocked with drums, you know my dad is a drummer, and when I started playing drums at some house parties…[phone cuts out)…and they sounded so mesmerizing to me, I just had to do it.

MM: You were growing up in the '80s, as a little kid, and nobody was really paying attention to your family's music and all of a sudden it became, you know, really important music all over the world and now people our age are really influenced by it. Do you have any memories of when that change happened?

CB: Well, I have to thank God, you know, for everything; just for the experience of playing this music and just for the experience of being a part of the Burnside family.

My granddaddy was playing hill country blues before I was born, you know, and when I was born and way after I was born. I guess around about 10, 11 years old, you know, we used to play in the juke joints. They used to come and listen to us, you know, but people all over the world didn't know about the hill country music.

It was just known right there in the area, maybe a few states down but around about the ‘90s, I guess right round about ‘93, ‘94, it started becoming a whole lot more popular and people started getting into this hill country blues a little bit more, you know, and I thank God for that.

But yeah, I can't tell you why it took so long for people to get hip to this music but I can say I'm damn glad that they're hip to it now and we love playing it, you know?

MM: Do you think it's better that they waited, because maybe there is something more real about it than the rest of the music around these days?

CB: Well, I would have to say yeah, man, because this music here, you know, is more of a feel music. You know, what you feel and stuff that you done lived through and actually made it through, you know, and that's what this music is. A lot of people have sat in and played with us they be asking us do we play in 16 bars or, you know. It ain't no read music, it's feel music. You know? I can't tell you what key to go to because we don't really know, we do what we feel and that's the whole key thing to this music, you know?

MM: And you play together long enough, you know where the other players are going.

CB: Yeah, see I don't even have to look at Malcolm a lot of times. Sometimes I might have to look at him to see when he gonna start singing, but other than that, you know, we been playing so long I don't even have to look at him most of the time because we just know this music, you know.

MM: You're playing the hill country blues music, but you're also adding a contemporary twist to it.

CB: Definitely. Definitely.

MM: Do you see yourselves as preserving the old blues, or do you see it as making a new kind of blues out of the old stuff?

LM: Yeah, that, too.

CB: Well, yeah, because we write new songs every day. They are new songs and all of them is based out of all the old music that we done made with all these old cats. I played with my granddad, you know, Junior Kimbrough…and all of my music style is from them, so that is what I know. So when I write my music, write my songs, I write them according to what I know and it all has that hill country feel to it. It might have a little twist to it 'cause we quite younger than those guys, but for the younger generation too, you know, more upbeat, more for speed I guess, but all my songs is written from hill country style.

MM: Do you feel like you have a responsibility to preserve it?

CB: I know I do.

MM: I mean, you're the guy now. You're the one who’s got the name and you're touring with the album. Do you feel like it's your responsibility?

CB: Yeah, I know it is, man; to keep it going. I have to say this, man, I don't mean to be cocky or nothing, but I helped create a lot of my granddad's music, and I created some of Junior Kimbrough's music too, and I feel like, you know, I'm part of the source. I Feel like I'm the only source that's left, even though I might be young, I feel that I'm the only source that's left for this music, and I'll keep it going, until I die.

MM: Do you feel the same way, Malcolm, or do you feel more experimental?

LM: Well, I feel the same way, really. You know, I'm just trying to make the songs the best they can so people can dance off of 'em. That's the main thing, you know. Just taking what I love from guys that I thought were pretty great and make my own sound out of it. Make it a grove that people like, and if they like it I love it.

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