Roadhouse album review: Cedric Burnside adds personal “I Be Trying” chapter to hill country blues story

Cedric Burnside comes from a family filled with the story of North Mississippi hill country blues. With his latest album “I Be Trying” (June 25 Single Lock Records), Burnside takes that musical story, that history, and nudges it a just little out of the deep dark hollows of its past with some contemporary sensibilities.

But there’s not so much nudging that the music loses its historical power and significance.

The Mississippi hill country music is a powerful branch of the blues tree growing outside the Delta that features strong rhythmic and percussive content with polyrhythmic drumming, and heavy, almost monotonous, guitar work. It can easily conjure a hypnotic, trance-like effect.

Burnside’s grandfather, R.L. Burnside, was one of the forefathers of hill country music, which he reportedly absorbed from a neighbor, another hill country ancestor, Mississippi Fred McDowell.

His father, Calvin Jackson, was a drummer and also an innovative player in the hill country tradition.

Put all of that musical history into Cedric Burnside’s head and musical soul, tease it out with his newfound guitar-based songwriting skills, and you have a more autobiographical and introspective take on hill country blues in “I Be Trying.”

Plaintive vocals and stark guitar on “The World Can Be So Cold” serve as an introduction to the thoughtful lyrics and production throughout. The spare hill country style adds notes of pain and pleasure, a complement to the haunting lyrical content of Burnside’s very personal journey.

The album includes eleven of those personally crafted songs, plus two covers — R.L. Burnside’s “Just Like a Bird Without a Feather,”  Junior Kimbrough’s “Hands Off That Girl.” 

On “I Be Trying,” a deeply thoughtful look inward, Burnside expands the family’s musical tree in a lovely duet with his daughter, Portrika .

Burnside has been changing the way he creates his music. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, he said: “I really love to be myself. And the reason I say that is because all the times before “Benton County Relic” (in 2018) I always collaborated with other musicians. Before I got really focused on guitar, I wrote my music from the drums, or I just had it in my head, so I’d always have to show another guitar player what I had in my head. Now I play what I have in my head. … A lot of stuff in my head can be really unorthodox, off the beaten path,” he said.

“I am one of R.L. Burnside’s grandsons that will play this music until I leave this world,” he said in that interview. “I feel that I am hill-country blues.”

This is an excellent album. You can feel the strength of the emotional energy that Burnside has obviously invested. He definitely is the hill country blues.

Some extra information:

  • Cedric Burnside recently received a 2021 National Heritage Fellowship
  • The album was recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis and produced by Boo Mitchell, the son of Memphis producer and Hi Records’ Willie Mitchell (noted for his work with Al Green). Burnside played guitar and shared percussion with Reed Watson (owner of Single Lock Records). North Mississippi Allstars’ Luther Dickinson and Alabama Shakes bassist Zac Cockrell also contribute.
  • Just for fun: A photo I took of Burnside at the Wheeling, W.Va., blues festival in 2010.

A video of the song “Step In”:

A video of “Pretty Flowers”:

Track list:

The World Can Be So Cold
Step In
I Be Trying
You Really Love Me
Love Is The Key
Keep On Pushing
Gotta Look Out
Pretty Flowers
What Makes Me Think
Bird Without A Feather
Hands Off That Girl
Get Down
Love You Forever

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