A Less Predictable Blues | Music | Style Weekly

The blues is appropriately plural. The song-and-guitar based music of the African diaspora is anything but unitary.

There are different regional traditions, coalescing into sub-genre by the interpretation of seminal artists. In the case of the Mississippi Hill Country, the prime source- which translates to the performer recorded by traditional music field researcher Alan Lomax, was Mississippi Fred McDowell. (A cover of his “You’ve Got to Move” was a highlight of the Rolling Stones’ classic 1970 album “Sticky Fingers.”)

His slightly younger protégé, R.L. Burnside, had a commercial breakthrough on the HBO show “The Sopranos” and through a Nissan commercial in the 1990s. And his grandson and former accompanist, guitarist/drummer, Cedrick Burnside, is a leading voice in the current generation. He performs on Friday and Saturday of the Richmond Folk Festival. And he may still be in a celebratory mood: Burnside won a Grammy this year for best traditional blues album for his 2021 album “I Be Trying.”

According to an article in his hometown paper, Burnside wrote the album mostly before COVID began, and it was recorded over three days in late 2020 “at Royal Studios in Memphis — the same recording studio where Willie Mitchell, Al Green and other soul artists cranked out hit after hit in the 1960s and 70s.” Even though it’s blues music, Burnside told the paper he felt the core message of the album was positivity: “I want people to know that no matter what you go through, you’re still going to have to be strong and embrace it … But your actions, that’s what determines how your life is going to go.”

The highlands of northern Mississippi run west of the Delta, home country for the more familiar 12-bar blues forms. The Hill Country variety can be at once more harmonically simpler and less predictable, based on open-ended riffs and rhythms.

Burnside is thoroughly steeped in the tradition, there is footage of him playing drums as a pre-teen with his musical family. His recordings, two of which were Grammy-nominated, embody the guitar-saturated excitement that made R.L. Burnside such a bracing performer, with the subtle addition of elements that keep the music fresh.

An established, highly focused style can be a trap. But Burnside knows how to build as well as dig.

Cedric Burnside kicks off the Richmond Folk Festival with a performance on Friday, Oct. 7 from 6:30 to 7:30 on the Altria Stage. On Saturday, Oct. 8 he plays from 1:15 to 2:15 at the Dominion Dance Pavilion and will be a part of the “Trance Blues from Mauritania to Mississippi” session from 4:30 to 5:30 at Costar Group Stage; finally, he plays from 7:15 to 8 p.m. on the Carmax Stage. For the full schedule, visit the Folk Fest website here.

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