Cedric Burnside and Lightnin' Malcolm seem to personify the platonic ideals of the Delta blues. Burnside explains that he was raised alongside "eight or nine" other children in a two-room house deep in the northern Mississippi Hill Country. Also in the house? His grandfather, R.L. Burnside, an iconoclastic blues legend who, before his death in 2005, taught him everything he knew about the blues.
"We grew up without a radio," explains Burnside, a drummer. "My grandpa used to have a bunch of house parties on the weekend; he used to get all his friends together [to jam]. Later on we got a radio, but we still never listened to it that much, because he still had those house parties."
Malcolm, meanwhile, is a white guitar virtuoso born in Springfield, Missouri, just on the other side of the Arkansas border, but says he has drifted most of his life. "We've got a good situation now, so I haven't had to move from state to state like I used to," he says. "I used to have no house, no bed, no phone, no nothing else."
Known to play both the bass and guitar parts of a song at the same time — by plugging a bass amp and guitar amp into a single guitar and using his thumb to keep the rhythm — Malcolm speaks with a molasses-thick Southern black twang. "I looked at the guitar like it was God or something," he explains of his early obsession with his instrument. "The way some people feel about the Bible, I felt that way about the guitar."
The 34-year-old Malcolm's real first name is Steve; he and Burnside met after Malcolm took up R.L.'s tutelage as well. Together he and the 30-year-old Burnside form an eponymous duo that has just finished recording its second album. Though they live practically off the map — Malcolm calls Holly Springs, Mississippi, home; Cedric lives about 20 miles to the southeast in an impossibly tiny town called Hickory Flat — they've slowly cultivated recognition in recent years, based on both R.L.'s legacy and their own skills.
Burnside played on the soundtrack of the 2006 movie Black Snake Moan, and even had a small part in the film as part of Samuel L. Jackson's band. "Craig Brewer, the [director] of the movie, he wanted to do a true story on my granddad," Burnside explains.
"Everything in the movie wasn't true — to tell you the truth, not really anything was true — but it was just cool having a movie dedicated to my granddad." (So let it be known: Though R.L. once shot a man in the face, he never held a sex-crazed Christina Ricci lookalike captive in his house.)
Burnside and Malcolm received another unlikely boost recently when, on a break at a recent New Orleans show, they were told that a famous member of the audience wanted to jam with them. "They said, 'Jimmy Buffet is out there, wants to play with you guys,'" Malcolm remembers. "We thought they was joking. When I saw him sitting there [in the audience], I had no idea he was a big star. He just looked like a guy who works in an office, like a tourist."
They welcomed Buffet, despite the fact that Burnside had next to no idea who the guy was. "He might have played ["Margaritaville"] up there with us," he speculates. "I wouldn't have known." In any case, the multiplatinum master of the Parrotheads had such a good time he invited the duo along for three upcoming concert dates in Wisconsin and Illinois.
Having learned the drums at about age seven, Burnside has played on countless albums, including those of his grandfather and Burnside Exploration, an act that once featured him and his uncle Gary Burnside but now soldiers on in his absence. While his first CD with Malcolm, Juke Joint Duo, was self-produced, their latest, still-untitled album was recorded professionally in Nashville, and Burnside is extremely excited about it.
Set for release on Delta Groove in October, it features original songs from both, all electric guitar-backed except for the tracks where they switch instruments and Burnside plays acoustic. Burnside-penned tracks include "I Don't Just Think about the Blues" and a tribute to R.L., while Malcolm's contributions include a love song called "Fightin'," which he sings over the phone: "Hold me up in your arms, make love to me before they drop the bomb."
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The guys come off as affable and carefree, and they have the talking points of blues mythology down pat. "Most white people, they kind of learn the blues from rock and roll," says Malcolm, who thinks he got his nickname from Lightnin' Hopkins but isn't entirely sure.
"I listened to that, but when I was about eight or nine, I just happened to be around when somebody played a tape of Muddy Waters. And I heard it and said, 'What the hell is that?' I saw the tape case and saw Muddy Waters on the front. He just looked so proud and so beautiful. That's the type of person I wanted to be."
Burnside's stated mission is to promote R.L.'s legacy and maintain the relevance of the blues. "I don't think anybody could live up to his legacy, but I just really want to keep it going, get some of me and Malcolm's music out there and keep my granddad's music alive," he says. "I know there's not a lot of people doing the style of music that we are doing today, writing our own music. It's all Hill Country, and [we] got it all from my granddad."
With recent books like Marybeth Hamilton's In Search of the Blues questioning traditionally accepted histories of the Delta blues, it's a pleasure to connect with such talented, committed crusaders for the genre. Ignoring one's skepticism is quite easy when it comes to this pair of living, breathing anachronisms.