The sleepy hill country of northern Mississippi is fertile ground for the blues. The late Junior Kimbrough's juke joint in Chulahoma, which burned down in 2000, was a storied, almost mystical venue for Sunday night shows by Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and other players who started to gain notice in the early '90s with the formation of the Oxford-based blues label Fat Possum. That label, which recorded the raw, unstudied sounds of Kimbrough's contemporaries, has -- with the inevitable deaths of many artists who signed in their sixties and seventies -- lately started to branch off into working with younger, slightly more mainstream rock acts. In the past few years, it's released two tribute albums of Kimbrough's songs, one by various artists and one from the garage-blues duo the Black Keys -- and a DVD documentary on the label's early lineup and sound. It looks like a neat coda to a time that's passed.
But maybe not. Guitarist Duwayne Burnside grew up in the thick of that community, playing guitar behind his father R.L. and Junior Kimbrough since he was old enough to hold one, and sitting in as a rhythm player with blues greats like Bobby "Blue" Bland and B.B. King when they passed through nearby Memphis. Burnside recorded with his famously irascible dad as part of the Sound Machine Groove in the '90s, for the Fat Possum and Hightone labels, and for a time owned his own club, the Burnside Kitchen and Grill, in Memphis where he booked acts, flipped burgers, sold beer and played weekly. In 2001, he hooked up with another roots-rock dynasty, the Dickinson brothers' North Mississipi Allstars, and spent a couple of years touring with them, playing their brand of psychedelic blues fusion rock on their third release, Polaris. In 2004, Burnside released an album with his own band, the Mississippi Mafia, which included his nephew Cedric Burnside on drums, on his own label BC Records. And for now, he's taking it easy -- but not for long.
"We were playing all the time," Burnside says of growing up in Senatobia, Miss., surrounded by generations of Kimbroughs, Burnsides, Dickinsons and other hill country blues artists. "It was something different, you can believe that. I played with R.L. and Junior since I was 9. You learn a lot from those guys. I guess I got a style kind of like them ... but I got my own thing too."
Like his occasional bandmates the North Mississippi Allstars, Burnside can't help but add a second-generation flavor to his sound. Where Burnside senior's early recordings were unpolished and spare, Duwayne is heavily electrified and full of '60s soul influences -- you can hear those childhood visits from Albert King and Bobby Bland come through the tricky licks and sonic haze on Under Pressure, Burnside's last album. A standout track is the fittingly named "Tribute," which has a sweet, soft, Sam Cooke-style '60s soul sound that wistfully sketches a picture of the musical scene of Burnside's childhood. Currently, he's recording a new project at Jimbo Mathus' Sweet Tea Studios in Clarksdale, Miss., along with some other members of the Burnside clan, that will, among other things, include a reworking of that song, and some other surprises.
"I'm gonna put something else in 'Tribute,' spice it up a little bit," Burnside says. "It's gonna be real different. I think it'll be all right. We're doing one tune of Junior's that'll be kind of rough. And we're going to do a ZZ Top song, 'Tush,' and my brothers are going to be on it."
Burnside also is keeping the torch burning in a more physical way, having just opened up a new club, Burnside's Juke Joint, close to Oxford, Miss. "It's got that image, that feeling," he says. "It's got that vibe there. [North Mississippi]'s still a good place for music."
Last week, the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park ceremonially broke ground in Armstrong Park with a second line through the park to Basin Street and a reception. Throughout the fall, it will continue its partnership with the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, offering afternoon concerts on Saturdays and Wednesdays, as well as jazz roots programming with the park's music rangers on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Events take place at the French Quarter Visitor's Center (916 N. Peters St., 589-4841; www.nps.gov/jazz).
- Son of blues-legend R.L. Burnside, Duwayne Burnside has played with many blues legends, the North Mississippi Allstars and his own band the Mississippi Mafia.