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Here to stay: carrying on the legacy of Hill Country

RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough are about as prolific as it gets. But despite their foundational role in the evolution of the blues, their style—known as “Hill Country Blues”—was barely recognized until Robert Palmer released his 1992 documentary Deep Blues about the region’s unique blues traditions.

Matt Joseph, PC ’12, the student responsible for bringing RL Burnside’s grandchildren (Cedric and Cody Burnside) and Junior Kimbrough’s son (Robert Kimbrough, Sr.) to perform at Yale on this past Thursday, spent last summer studying and living the Hill Country blues scene. A dedicated blues enthusiast, he drove down to Mississippi hoping to do some archival research and to “get to know the real Mississippi.” Joseph’s search led him to a juke joint (a bar with a live band or a jukebox and room for dancing) in the Hill Country, where he met Robert Kimbrough, Sr. “I was at his juke joint every Sunday. He turned me onto people who turned me onto other people. When all was said and done I had about 40 interviews,” he said.

Joseph learned that what sets Hill Country blues apart from the more well known delta blues style of artists like Muddy Waters and Robert Thompson is its complete isolation from the Mississippi Delta: Its rurality lends to the formation of a more communal form of music making. “Because it’s a community based music, it’s much more groove oriented. It’s dance music. It doesn’t have as many chord changes: one, maybe two, sometimes none. Songs can go on for 15 minutes to an hour. It kind of produces a trance like state—everyone’s dancing. It’s hypnotic,” Joseph said.

The audience could feel this charged vibe during Thursday’s concert. Some even got up to dance in front of the stage. The show started with Cedric playing some traditional Hill Country blues on the guitar. When Cedric switched to his real element, the drums (he’s been playing since he was eight), his brother Cody joined in on some songs with his trademark rap accompaniment. And Robert came on stage a few times to play along to some of his father Junior’s classic songs. The second time Robert came onto the stage, he said, “We’re gonna do something called ‘Do the Rump.’ I can’t do it like my dad does it, but I’m gonna try.” Cedricanswered from behind on the drums, “Just do it like you do it.”
Does the new generation of musicians feel obligated to play the blues the same way their legendary fathers and grandfathers did?

For Robert, the answer is an unequivocal yes: “I have to carry on my daddy’s legacy. Me and my brothers will do that, regardless.” It was clear both during his performance and during my interview with him that Robert’s music is very much connected to his memories of his father and his desire to carry on the tradition. “I just pretty much follow his footsteps. He was at home when I was little, playing the blues. He’d come home and practice, and once he’d get through rehearsing, me and my brothers would go in there and get on the equipment and play around and break a string, bust a drum, you know. When he came home he would normally go off, but he didn’t really care because that’s what he wanted us to do—play the blues.” Robert plans to honor his father’s memories by carrying on with the music they both loved.

Though Cedric, too, plays the same style of blues as his grandfather RL Burnside (he even plays with the same Open G “Spanish” tuning that his father was famous for), he does not do so out of a sense of obligation. “We didn’t have a radio until I was seven or eight years old. My Granddad was my radio. Being able to roll with my grandfather taught me a lot about who I am and what I want to do, but I don’t feel like I have to. I want to. It’s in my heart. I’m a blues purist.” As his remark to Robert during the concert may have demonstrated, Cedric is not afraid to stray from his grandfather’s music. “My style isn’t way different from my grandfather’s, but I would say my style of writing is different. I went through different shit.” Still, Cedric shows the same attachment to his grandfather as Robert does to his father. In fact, he says he often visits RL’s grave to kick back with a beer or a joint and play the guitar for his grandfather.

Wondering if Cedric or Robert felt protective (or even possessive) of the blues legacies they inherited, I asked them both what they thought about the Black Keys’ recent remake of Junior Kimbrough’s most famous album. “I think they did pretty good. You know. It’s not the same as my dad. It’s okay, I guess,” Robert said. Cedric was a little less forgiving. “I honestly think they did it just for the money. I don’t think they knew a lot about that music. It wasn’t in their heart. Not that they’re not good, but their soul ain’t in it,” he said.

But neither Robert nor Cedric seemed worried that the blues was heading in the wrong direction (or worse, heading toward extinction). For Robert, as long as “the sons of Kimbrough and Burnside are still out there in the field,” the blues will stay alive. Cedric’s faith in the future of the blues rests in the talented hands of the even younger generation. His current favorite Hill Country blues band Homemade Jams, whose drummer is a 12-year-old girl and whose bassist is her 17-year-old brother. “That girl rocks the drums so hard,” Cedric said. “There will always be young people to keep the blues going.”

When I confessed to Cedric that I’d always imagined Mississippi to be some sort of laid back wonderland with people playing guitars on front porches, he said, “That is what it’s like! That’s what Hill Country is really like. In fact, I write most of my songs on my front porch.” Though Matt, Cedric, and Robert all agree that the blues are always changing, I get the sense that this communal essence of the Hill Country will not be lost anytime soon. After lamenting that many of the juke joints in the Hill Country had been either shut down or burned down in recent years, Cedric confidently added, “They’ll come back, though. I’m not worried”

  • Daniel Smith

    Always really liked Mississippi Fred McDowell a lot when I was younger. Robert Johnson was good. I liked Elmore James better. But the ones who have lately done it for me have been John Lee Hooker, Robert Pete Williams, T-Model Ford, and R.L. Burnside. I am with Mr. Cedric in that I think the Black Keys are stale. But I like how the White Stripes are more gritty and that Jack White seems to genuinely admire Son House. I automatically play with thumb (or thumb pick), nail on my right pointing finger, and often with a slide. Hill Country blues are my favorite. My work can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/drdblues?ref=hl.