A trip through Mississippi Hill Country can be a bit stark, accompanied by the drone of angry mosquitoes pursuing you over the terrain. But if your guide has skills filtered down through family that can navigate the territory, it can be a melodic, uplifting experience.
Cedric Burnside’s grandfather, R.L. Burnside, was instrumental in bringing the music of the region down to flatlanders, unleashing an endless boogie syndrome that gets inside your head and doesn’t want to leave.
Enthralled by the music, a 13-year-old Cedric joined his grandfather on the road as drummer in his band. Nearly three decades later, Cedric has taken those lessons he learned on the road and created his own music through a lens that offers a wider spectrum of influences to ooze in. The roots are still intact, but with funk soul and tinges of gospel clinging to them as well.
The title cut of his new album, I Be Trying, is as much a prayer as a statement, a churchy-flavored plea to whoever’s out there to acknowledge that he’s working hard on himself, tryin’ to be a whole new man. He retains the North Mississippi drone, sweetened by the addition of daughter Portrika’s vocals, but pretties it up a bit with flecks of gospel from the guitar he plays on all the cuts in addition to drumming on most of them.
“The World Can Be So Cold” is a tour through Hill Country seen though Burnside’s eyes, a rendering of a landscape prettier than seen by most observers, and more soulful. Burnside used Al Green’s famed “Mic #9” on the cut for an extra soul injection while recording at Royal Studios in Memphis, where Green cut many of his soul classics on Hi Records in the ’70s.
Burnside saves his biggest helping of soul for the closer, “Love You Forever,” an uphill falsetto excursion professing his permanence and availability for his beloved — it’s as soulful as a Green emanation, just taken a bit further up the hill.
In between, Burnside serves as a tour guide for an uphill, flora-strewn backcountry journey on “Pretty Flowers,” a homage to his current honey who’s the star of his garden, vowing to keep on with his horticultural effort to sustain her beauty.
But Hill Country is not all flowers and sweetness. He shows the sinister side of the hills on a cover of Junior Kimbrough’s “Keep Your Hands Off Her.” Re-titled “Hands Off That Girl,” Burnside leaves no doubt, in tone or lyrically, about the consequences of messing with a bespoke loved one who walks and talks good.
A cover of granddaddy R.L.’s “Bird Without a Feather” creeps around like a grounded, plucked fowl, the grandson relating his granddaddy’s take on the fate of a man who loved too much, shooting his former beloved ’cause she done him wrong and now his home ain’t where it used to be, he laments from the confines of his graybar hotel.
Cedric Burnside is following the family tradition, plodding uphill with a tenacity and dedication that’s a match for the rough terrain, planting new crops as he goes without disturbing the original roots.