The Memphis area is a region of musical families. The (Sam) Phillipses, the (Rufus) Thomases, and the (Jim) Dickinsons are just the leading names in a long list of multigeneration music clans that help give the local music scene such a tight-knit personality. Another royal name in Mid-South music is Burnside. The late R.L. Burnside rivaled Junior Kimbrough as the chief purveyor of north Mississippi hill-country blues when both men were making the scene at Kimbrough's Holly Springs juke joint and winning converts across the globe via albums for Mississippi indie label Fat Possum.
R.L. Burnside may be gone, having passed away in 2005, but he's left a living legacy, most prominently in the form of sons Garry and DuWayne and grandson Cedric.
Cedric, who started playing drums behind his grandfather when he was barely in his teens, has backed up Kenny Brown and played alongside his uncle Garry in the Burnside Exploration since his "Big Daddy" passed away, but of late he's stepping into the blues limelight even more as one half of the "juke joint duo" alongside singer-guitarist Steve "Lightnin'" Malcolm.
After a self-released debut album, Burnside & Malcolm are making their real-deal debut this fall with 2 Man Wrecking Crew, a terrific update on the hill-country tradition released by blues label Delta Groove.
For the most part, Burnside plays drums and Malcolm guitar, but the duo trades instruments on three of the album's 14 songs and they share writing and singing duties, with Burnside taking a slight lead. Vocally, they provide a nice contrast, with Malcolm's rough bellow something of a blue-eyed Howlin' Wolf while Burnside has a sweeter, lighter, more musical voice that edges into soul on standout tracks like "My Sweetheart" and "That's My Girl."
Burnside opens the album with "R.L. Burnside," a tribute to the patriarch who all but raised Cedric and who lured longtime fan Malcolm south as an adult.
"I kinda grew up my whole life staying with my granddad," Burnside says. "I was basically there my whole childhood until I was about 18 or 19 years old. Growing up in the Burnside family, man, it's just ... it was an experience, but I loved doing it."
While other kids his age grew up listening to rap on the radio, Burnside had a much different and more direct musical education.
"My granddad and his friends used to throw little house parties on the weekend and all the little grandkids would just get out there and kick up dust, just have fun," Burnside says.
"That was the first music I ever heard. We didn't have a radio in the house. My granddaddy used to play the guitar all the time. That was our music. We grew up listening to the hill-country blues.
"A lot of my friends, when I got up to around 12 or 13 years old, didn't like the blues until they started coming to the club — Junior Kimbrough's juke joint — and listening to it played live. I don't know if it sounded different from the CDs or what, but they kept coming back. I turned a lot of them onto it."
It was at those house parties that Burnside first started playing drums, slipping behind the kit when "Big Daddy" and his friends would take a drinking break. His grandfather encouraged him first by playing with him, then by helping him purchase his first real drum set as a teenager, a story Burnside recounts in the album's opening song.
"It was at the drum shop in Memphis," Burnside remembers. "I had about $500, and the drum set was about $700. I'd been up there and it was on sale a couple of weeks before, but the sale was off. And my granddad was standing there and said, 'Well, you got it, Dicky?' I said, 'Naw, I ain't got but $500.' And he said, 'Heh, boy. Here you go.' And he took it out of his pocket. My grandfather was an amazing man. I miss him a lot."
Now out on his own with Malcolm, the duo is building a buzz the elder Burnside would no doubt be proud of, picking up their touring schedule and winning over some unexpected fans.
"It's kind of crazy," Burnside says, remembering the duo's oddest road experience so far. "We were in New Orleans at a club called the BBA Club. And there's this guy standing in front of us, and he was jamming. I mean, he was digging it. I didn't have the slightest idea who he was, and Malcolm didn't either, at first. So we took a break and went backstage and one of the people in the audience came back and said, 'Hey, man, Jimmy Buffett and his drummer want to know if they can play your instruments.' And I was like, 'Who the hell is Jimmy Buffett?' And Malcolm said, 'Really, man, Jimmy Buffett? You've got to be kidding.' We thought they were bullshitting."
Turns out, no: Mr. Margaritaville himself was indeed in the crowd and smitten.
"About five minutes later, we heard music and went out there, and it was Jimmy Buffet on stage. He was loving it. And about three weeks after that, he gave us a call, wanting us to go on a four or five day tour with him," Burnside remembers.
That little Midwestern tour put Burnside & Malcolm in outdoor arenas surrounded by thousands of unsuspecting Parrotheads, which might have been more surreal even than growing up Burnside.
"It was kind of strange to us, that he would pick us. I love doing our style of music, but I didn't think Jimmy Buffett would be interested in listening to anything like that," Burnside says. "One show, in a football stadium, there must have been 50,000 people there, as far as you could see. It was crazy as hell. But it was one of the coolest experiences I've had."
Cedric Burnside & Lightnin' Malcolm
Ground Zero Blues Club, Memphis
Friday, December 5th