Cedric Burnside Project and solo guitarist Jimmy “Duck” Holmes offer acoustic evidence of the regional and generational differences among Mississippi blues styles when they appear on a double bill this weekend in Santa Fe and El Prado, near Taos.
Burnside’s grandfather, R.L. Burnside, of Holly Springs, Mississippi, was influenced by the rhythmic guitar style of the legendary “Mississippi Fred” McDowell, who played area juke joints in the 1940s. He exaggerated the form and applied it to his own style, extending lines and moving beyond the expected count before changing chords. The technique gave his music a certain tension and unpredictability that kept his sidemen on their toes. Cedric Burnside picked up this style at the age of 13 when he began touring as his grandfather’s drummer.
About 200 miles south, in Bentonia, Mississippi, Holmes, a generation older than Cedric Burnside, savored the country blues he heard in the music of Henry Stuckey, Skip James, and Jack Owens. Stuckey was a neighbor who played at Holmes’ parents’ juke joint and gave Holmes his first guitar when young “Duck” was 10.
“I’ve had that name [Duck] since I’ve known myself,” Holmes said in a phone call from Bentonia. Holmes professes to be the last practitioner of the Bentonia school of acoustic, country-style blues, which he said is both a matter of tuning and feeling. “Some music professionals heard Henry Stuckey and the others and started calling it E-flat Minor tuning and open tuning and things like that,” he said. “The old guys just called it cross-note playing. Jacob Stuckey [Henry’s brother] called it ‘open cross-note playing.’ ”
Call it what you will, the resulting sound is generally a bit more somber and moody than traditional Mississippi Delta blues and different from the good-time feel of contemporary blues. Henry Stuckey picked up the tuning from the Bahamian soldiers he served with in France during World War II. Back in the States, Owens and James adopted the style after hearing what Stuckey did with it. The minor-key feel of the sound seemed perfect for the hardscrabble lyrics inspired by the farming and catfishing region in which they lived. “Playing the Bentonia style,” Holmes said, “means you have to play it from the heart. Anybody can strum a guitar. But your heart has to tell your fingers what to do. Some guys want to see the sheet music, they want a beat. But we don’t play this music for dancing. We play it to tell a story.”
Though he’s been playing guitar since he was a kid, Holmes didn’t start performing in front of audiences until seven or eight years ago. “I realized after Jack Owens died [in 1997] that he was one of the unique blues originators and there wasn’t anybody around to play the old country style,” Holmes said. “It was nonexistent. People were asking me to take it up.”
Born in 1947, Holmes has been around music his entire life. In 1948. his family opened the Blue Front Café, which became famous for its fried buffalo fish, moonshine, and music. Holmes took over the place when his mother died in 1970, and today the café is a stop on the historic Mississippi Blues Trail and home of the Bentonia Blues Festival held each June. But the music, he feels, is endangered.
“I do a lot by myself,” he said. “[Bentonia style] is part of the culture, but the younger guys don’t appreciate it enough to have anything to do with it. It’s getting lost in the shuffle. Someday, you’ll only be able to hear it on records or CDs or something. That’s the only place it’s guaranteed to live.”
Cedric Burnside likewise is heir to a Mississippi blues lineage but is also a product of the generational changes that come when younger players pick up influences from other forms of music. Much of the way he approaches rhythm he learned from his grandfather, “Big Daddy.” “When you hear my music you can hear my granddad as well,” he said. “When you’re around someone your whole young life, you tend to sound like them, even walk like them.”
Most of that influence is rhythmic. Even when he plays funk-oriented backbeats, Burnside likes to draw things out, as his grandfather did. “All of hill country music has its own timing,” he explained. “If you haven’t been exposed to it, sometimes you won’t quite get it. I’m not saying that nobody can figure it out, but you have to be focused when you’re playing it and pay attention.”
Burnside’s father, Calvin Jackson, was a drummer who worked with R.L. Burnside. But it was R.L., not his dad, who influenced Cedric Burnside’s choice to be a drummer. “He wasn’t around much when I was growing up,” Burnside said of his dad. Burnside, in fact, took his mother’s maiden name after his parents separated.
Young Cedric first got behind the drums at his grandfather’s weekly house parties. “Those were awesomely beautiful events to me,” he said. “I was about 10 or 11, and I’d get to hear [R.L.] playing at juke joints and at those house parties every weekend. The band would play on Big Daddy’s porch. They’d set up this old raggedy drum kit and just jam, drink a little, have a good time. I was 6 or 7 about the first time I remember attending. I’d be watching them and they’d take a break and I’d work up my courage and sit down behind the drums and play a little. I didn’t know what I was doing. But it didn’t matter if I could play or not. Everybody was encouraging. I just thank God for that experience.”
Another influence was Burnside’s younger brother Cody, who died in 2010. Cody liked rap and funk, and the two worked together in the first incarnation of the Burnside Project, where Cedric Burnside experimented with hip-hop and R&B rhythms. The band, now with guitarist Trenton Ayers, maintains the strong beats and funky rhythms of its earlier work even as it incorporates more traditional electrified blues.
“I like some rap,” Burnside said. “But I’m a die-hard bluesman. I’ve just always been interested in different kinds of music and doing different things if it sounds good. My brother was so into rap, so we decided to see if we could get it to collaborate with the country blues school. But now? No, I wouldn’t do rap.”
Burnside’s drumming won him recognition as blues drummer of the year at the 2013 Blues Foundation Awards. He has collaborated with fellow Mississippian JoJo Herman of jam band Widespread Panic and with Jimmy Buffett.
Burnside likes to perform solo and to compose on his acoustic guitar. The cover of his 2010 recording, The Way I Am, shows him picking at the guitar while leaning up against his grandfather’s tombstone. “Songs come to me in various moments,” he said. “I can be in a hotel room or on my front porch, and the verses will come to me by themselves, without music. Sometimes I’ll write two or three of them in one day. The music might come later. I’ll get a riff going in my head and there it is. I write pretty simply. All my music comes according to the way I live and what I and my family go through.” ◀
▼ Cedric Burnside Project with Trenton Ayers; Jimmy “Duck” Holmes
▼ 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11
Taos Mesa Brewing, 20 ABC Mesa, El Prado (near Taos)
▼ 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12
Music Room at Garrett’s Desert Inn, 311 Old Santa Fe Trail, 505-982-1851
$25 in advance at www.brownpapertickets.org, $28 at the door