Playing Burnside Style

Kenny Brown and Cedric Burnside, shown playing at the annual Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi, are the two leading proponents of their mentor’s style. Photo by Margo Cooper

R.L. Burnside was a powerful musician. He could roll back time or conjure thunderstorms with his playing, and win the hearts of an audience with a single twinkle-eyed smile as he laid into a howling slide line with the ease of buttering toast. But, like many rural blues artists, he was extremely unfussy about the tools of his trade. Often he didn’t even own a guitar, so once he attained a level he was content with, practicing was something only people who wanted to sound like him did.

Like Kenny Brown. At 63, Brown is the most commanding proponent of Burnside’s deft, subjective picking style and powerhouse slide. On his trusty Memphis-built Gibson ES-335, Brown evokes the gutbucket majesty of hill country blues and the songster tradition he learned from Nesbit, Mississippi’s Joe Callicott before he met Burnside. Both are best witnessed at the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic festival Brown hosts at his ranch in Waterford, Mississippi, each June.

“The stuff I had learned was three-chord progressions, and R.L.’s music would be, like, one chord.”—Kenny Brown

“R.L. didn’t really give a shit about the amp, the guitar, the strings, or the slide,” Brown observes. And over the years he played Westones, Strats, Teles, Les Pauls, Reverends, and all kinds of knock-offs, and sometimes Brown’s ’58 Silvertone with popsicle sticks glued behind the headstock to allow an upgrade to Grover tuners.

“That’s exactly right,” says Cedric Burnside, whose 2015 Descendants of Hill Country was Grammy-nominated. “Big Daddy would get a First Act out of Walmart, and he would play that. He just played whatever he had. And if somebody came along and made a guitar for him, which happened a couple times, he played it, but never had a preference.”

Except for plugging in. “When he would have to play acoustic for all those people in Holland, it was awful,” says Fat Possum’s Matthew Johnson. “He hated that. That was not R.L. But when it came to practicing, what he played, dialing in a sound, or writing new songs, it was like the only person who had less respect for their own craft than R.L. was Marlon Brando.” [Laughs.]

But Burnside’s sound was consistent. “You cannot go back to any of those recordings and differentiate between a Danelectro and a Les Paul with a Marshall stack versus a Silvertone with a Pignose amp,” Johnson attests.

Brown’s journey into Burnside’s style and life began after he saw him at a concert in a cow pasture. “R.L. played as a duo with a guy who didn’t play harmonica, but made harmonica sounds with his mouth. They were the opening act,” he recalls.

“I already knew some open tuning stuff and a little slide,” Brown says. “Joe had showed me how to lay the guitar in your lap and play slide with a knife in open G. But R.L. was playing great slide and in open tuning and standard, and that was the main thing that attracted me to him. And gosh … the stuff I had learned was three-chord progressions, and R.L.’s music would be, like, one chord. There would be changes in the song, but you never did just a standard three-chord progression. And it was heavy!”

Burnside’s sole open tuning was G, which he often called “Spanish,” in the way older blues musicians did and sometimes still do. When Brown met him, Burnside was playing slide with a weathered slice of copper tubing. “Later on, I got him a brass slide. He would use anything. I’ve used everything myself, from a Coricidin bottle to an 11/16ths socket, over the years. I used to do construction work, and if I’d see any plumbers around, I’d always get them to cut me a piece of copper tubing. Now I use a piece of brass, cut so your finger barely sticks out. I got a friend who works in a metal shop.”