Cedric Burnside Proves Fearless On ‘Benton County Relic’ (ALBUM REVIEW)


The best blues songs have an element of danger like they’re going to fall apart at any moment. It’s a feeling not unlike building Ikea furniture while drunk. Cedric Burnside’s Benton County Relic taps into that invigorating feeling of falling, perfectly slowing the beat of songs to create huge grooves and using raw guitar to accentuate the melodies.

Cedric Burnside is the grandson of North Mississippi blues legend R.L. Burnside. R.L.’s work can be described as wild blues, with manic drums and beautifully random guitar outbursts. Cedric, who played drums for his grandfather, has a similar sensibility.

Burnside is not a carbon-copy of his grandfather, nor of his father, the blues drummer Calvin Jackson. He borrows liberally from both, but also weaves in contemporary influences, creating a sound that takes his family’s Hill country roots and gives them an ever-so-gentle polish, keeping the wildness and freeness of the grooves, but also instituting more control.

Cedric also has a nice voice, with a warmth and old-school blues sweetness not necessarily associated with his family. He sings in a similarly percussive way, but also manages to smooth out the edges. Put together, it makes Benton County Relic a continuation of the blues, rather than just a repetition of it.

“Get Your Groove On,” as the title suggests, swings and bounces along as Burnside’s guitar mimics his singing. You can’t quite dance to the track, but it’ll definitely make you sway. While Burnside doesn’t play drums on the album (they’re more than capably handled by Brian Jay), his respect for the groove drives the record. His ability to slow a down song and somehow make it feel fast is simply amazing. For instance, a track like “Don’t Leave Me Girl” could be a standard soul song in the hands of another artist. But with Jay and Burnside, it becomes sexy and propulsive, the silence of the song just as important as the notes and beats.

Many of the grooves will sound familiar. They’ve been used by everyone from the White Stripes to the Black Keys, to, unsurprisingly, the North Mississippi Allstars, with whom Burnside has played. Burnside has an amazing ability to work the beat, expanding rests just long enough to create suspense throughout a song. One could guess it’s a gift he inherited from grandfather, but it’s far more likely a skill he cultivated through countless performances and close observations of the audience.

It can be hard for artists to let songs breathe. There’s something scary about letting a song do nothing, if only for a moment. Burnside is fearless in that regard, and it’s especially impressive since he recorded the album in just two days. The album has an intentional feel; the performances are all well thought-out. But there’s also a looseness to the album that makes it radiate with a live, unscripted energy. Burnside is masterful at knowing when to let a song do it’s thing. Unlike my Tarva dresser, built on the strength of a six-pack, Benton County Relic will stand the test of time.

top photo by Dale Gunnoe

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