Cedric Burnside carries the mantle — the joy and the burdens and the history of the North Mississippi hill country blues, a style like no other in Southern music. And his life ain’t that different from what he plays.
Story by Brian Foster | Photographs by Adam Smith
The road to Cedric Burnside’s home.
Slow down at the top of the hill, pass the country rock road on the left, shotgun church on the right, faded lines on the road in the middle. Come down the way slow, into the yard easy. Don’t matter where you park.
It had taken me awhile to get there, but when I got there I knew.
“Mane, sorry I took so long!” I shout to Cedric from the driveway, loud for no reason.
From his front door he calls back — “Come on in, man. Get you a seat” — so fast that it could have all been one word, so familiar it could have been an echo, or family.
“It’s good to see you again,” I tell him as I step up and inside, passing up a couch toward the front of the house for a chair at a table toward the back. It’s been some months since we first met — on a sidewalk under string lights in Oxford, Mississippi — and not that long since we last talked, just about a week ago.
In the time in between, I met and talked with Cedric a lot. I saw him play a live radio show in a bookstore and talked to him for a little while after. I danced during his set at a storefront spot and talked to him for a long time before. I met with him, his wife Shaquonna, and two of his three daughters in the front booth of a soul food restaurant in Mississippi. He leaned to the side and whispered to me in the back of a music venue in Alabama.
“Hey again!” Shaquonna appears from a room with a warm greeting and a wide smile. We hug.
I put my stuff down slow, careful not to disturb the jumbo-sized Bible on one side of the table, tempted to try my luck with the cornbread on the other.
“We just waiting on them peas to cook down,” Cedric says, quickly doubling back to make sure. “You eat purple hull peas.” It was less a question and more an assignment. Shaquonna laughs before stepping outside. I take a deep breath before starting in.
“I just got a few more questions for you,” I say.
I have come to Benton County, Mississippi, to sit with Cedric Burnside, to listen to him talk about his music — hill country blues — and his life.
Cedric standing at his front door, looking out over his land.
He tells me his music is his heart and soul, that it has brought him a lot and a long way. He has played shows around the world, from his hometown of Chulahoma, Mississippi, to Toronto to Denmark and back again. He has recorded eight studio albums and played behind and alongside some of the foremost figures in the blues tradition. He has won more than a dozen individual awards and has led or contributed to four Grammy-nominated projects, most recently his 2018 release Benton County Relic.
He tells me his music is “unorthodox,” ”different from anything you ever heard.” It is defined by an upbeat tempo and driving percussion, guided more by feeling and intuition than convention. It is everything Mississippi has ever been, drawing its life from the land, sacred soil. It is nothing if not the legacy of everyday folks, living their days deliberately, trying to dodge death in the night. It carries the weight of names — heavy — from McDowell to Jessie Mae to R.L. It is both a remnant and a seed, some parts old and some parts new. You hear it, and it reminds you of something sure, indistinct but real, like you’ve heard it before, like it’s been here before, like it seem like it might last forever.
As the day passes by and Cedric talks more, I learn that his life ain’t that different.
“I get in my feelings, and I miss him,” Cedric tells me.
The peas are cooking. The oven glows a tinted yellow. The cornbread is already cut. We are settled in. Cedric had always been warm and energetic, his demeanor always firm and full. But something seems to catch him when I ask about his late grandfather — whom he calls “Big Daddy” — hill country blues paragon R.L. Burnside. Cedric sits different. He rests back in his chair, looks straight ahead, his eyes dark and welling.
“When I get like that, I’ll write it up (in a song), because that's how I know I’ll feel better. The music just take me back to when I was there with him, playing with him for all them years, just to know I once was there.”
Take me back there.
* * *
“The first show I ever played with my Big Daddy was Toronto, Canada,” Cedric tells me. “It was 1991. I was 13.”
The oldest of three children, Cedric grew up a free spirit, running circles around North Mississippi, unafraid of the unknown. The Toronto show was different though.
“I have to admit, Toronto scared me. It was a different place. I don’t know none of these people. I had got so used to playing at home, at the juke joints and the house parties.”
Cedric started playing around with drumsticks when he was 7. He would tap on pots and beat on buckets around the house. He would picture himself grooving beside R.L. He would learn and practice riffs with another hill country blues forefather, Junior Kimbrough. He would mimic his dad, Calvin Jackson, who was an able blues drummer in his own right. Cedric grew up wanting to be like them. He wanted to be with them. He wanted to do what seemed predestined by them, these hill country blues gods, to do what seemed to run in this family.
“It was in my blood to play the blues,” he says. “Watching my Big Daddy as a kid, watching my dad play drums, watching my family. I always was that kid sitting right there in front, watching them, wanting to do what they was doing.”
For much of his early life, Cedric had front row seats to an epic concert. His grandfather R.L. would throw house parties two or three times a month, turning their four-room home in Chulahoma into a jam-packed concert hall that could’ve sold out anywhere in the world. The headliners were a blues who’s who: Robert Cage, T-Model Ford, Paul Wine Jones, Big Jack Johnson, Frank Frost, Othar Turner, Jessie Mae Hemphill. The audience was just as wide-ranging.
“People came from miles around,” Cedric says. “ I’m talkin’ bout 30, 40 ...” — his voice grows louder as the distance gets longer — “... 50, 60 miles just to hear that music!”
I try to picture the scene: moonshine passing from closed fist to open mouth. A wisp of smoke trailing from a doobie. Kids laughing and rolling in the yard around the house. Mothers, wives, aunties, and cousins sitting and dancing divine, faces still, like royalty. Cedric frozen in place, watching it all, his imagination placing him just behind his Big Daddy, keeping the pocket and singing along.
Up the road from R.L. Burnside’s house parties was Junior Kimbrough’s Juke, a small building “in the middle of nowhere” — just off Highway 4 outside of Holly Springs, Mississippi — that seemed to attract everybody from everywhere.
“People wouldn’t even go home.” Cedric closes his eyes. “They come (to the juke joint) straight from work. I’m talkin’ ’bout oil on they pants, smut on they face … I remember one guy would come in, soon as he hit the door; he’d pay his money, pop that moonshine, walk across that floor, dancing already before he got in good!”
Cedric might well have been describing the certainty of a Sunday morning church service, the first verse of “Amazing Grace,” or how he took his coffee (dark with a generous helping of honey). He was just talking about his life.
“Ten years old, I was in there with them,” he explains. “Me and my uncle Gary Burnside. Sometimes with Mr. Junior Kimbrough or my Big Daddy, their drummer wouldn’t show up or their bass player wouldn’t show up, and me and my uncle Gary would have to be the back-up band.”
“In the Juke Joint at 10,” I say, question and answer.
“The police come in, and they would hide us behind the beer coolers in the back. The police leave, and we right back to playing,” Cedric says.
“That’s hill country blues,” he gives his story a bookend, tapping the table in rhythm.
Junior Kimbrough’s Juke, a small building “in the middle of nowhere” — just off Highway 4 outside of Holly Springs, Mississippi — that seemed to attract everybody from everywhere.
* * *
By most folkloric and historical accounts, the blues originated around the turn of the 20th century in the Delta region of Mississippi. As black Southerners dealt with the violent, inhumane conditions of enslavement, and eventually sharecropping and tenant farming, they crafted an expressive and communicative back channel, a way to talk to each other, uplift each other, narrate their lives, and subvert the powers that be. That back channel might have started with a field holler, or a moaned spiritual, or a knowing glance. Eventually it echoed as the blues. Over the next 100 years, as black folks moved from the rural South to urban places, across the country and back again, carrying and creating new sounds along the way, the blues multiplied.
In an earlier conversation, Cedric had given me a lesson. “You got Delta blues, Piedmont blues, Texas blues, Chicago blues,” he had said with authority, like he had told a thousand folks that same thing a thousand times. “All that’s going to have that one-four-five.” He explained the significance of the I-IV-V chord progression in most blues subgenres.
“Hill country is different. … It don’t have that one-four-five. I call it feel music. It’s real up-tempo. It’s real, I call it, unorthodox. The old cats that played it, they just changed when they got ready. They might stay on the one for two or three minutes.” Something in his description was funny to him. He laughed and laughed and laughed.
Hill country blues, also referred to as North Mississippi hill country blues, is named for its origins in the “Hill Country” region of Mississippi, which spans about 13 counties in the north-central and northeastern part of the state. Characterized by heavy, rapid percussion and loosely structured, often improvisational, guitar, the hill country sound emerged in the 1960s and is most closely tied to musicians like “Mississippi” Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough, Jessie Mae Hemphill, and Cedric’s grandfather R.L., among others. At first a niche sub-genre, the hill country blues gained national and international popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, leading shows, festivals, and concerts from New York City to Sydney, Australia, to Toronto, Canada.
R.L. Burnside & Junior Kimbrough at Kimbrough's juke joint.
* * *
“The Toronto show was the first time I felt scared,” Cedric tells me. “I didn’t know what to expect. I just remember Big Daddy telling me,” he imitates his grandfather’s tone and tenor, “‘It’s gonna be all right, Dick.’ For some reason, he called all of us [his sons, grandsons, and nephews] Dick; and he just kept telling me, like this, ‘It’s gonna be all right, Dick.’”
R.L. Burnside died in 2005. “Early one morning, he had a heart attack and passed on, in his sleep,” Cedric says, his attention carried away, perhaps by a distant memory or something else.
I ask Cedric what did he do, how did he feel, what happened next. He sits still.
Cedric and I had talked for hours and hours, over a span of months and months. Over and over, some kind of way, our conversations always circled back to R.L. Burnside, Big Daddy. Cedric had explained how R.L. stretched his meager ends wide enough to cover everybody in the family, a rugged selflessness that Cedric tries to embody in his own life. Cedric had retold R.L.’s old jokes (one about a “man and woman that had one kid”), sometimes adding his own embellishments and inflections. He had sang songs that R.L. wrote and sang, sometimes over dinner (“Poor Black Mattie”) and sometimes on the record (“Death Bell Blues”). We all had laughed about R.L.’s favorite snack, ice cream sandwiches. Cedric had talked and remembered and sighed and smiled at a hundred and one things about R.L. They had all seemed so vivid to him, so important to him — the most important thing in the world.
The Toronto trip was singular.
“I always remember Toronto,” Cedric says. “I always remember what Big Daddy told me. That carries me, even now today. ‘It’s gonna be all right, Dick. Just go up there and do what you do.’”
Cedric has recorded hundreds of songs and played hundreds of shows. He has sung lead and played background on more than a dozen albums. He is award-winning and Grammy-nominated, many times over. By any metric, he is one of the most accomplished figures in the blues tradition today, some say the best blues drummer anywhere around. His name and catalog could stand on their own. In some ways, they do stand on their own. His most recent Grammy nomination — for his first solo project — shows as much.
But there’s something about life and hill country blues that lingers, that keeps the names and legacies of the dead and gone from being dead and gone all the way. That’s how it is with R.L. Burnside.
“People tell me all the time, I remind them of him. It makes me feel good. What was in him is in me.” Cedric’s voice trails off.
The pot on the stove bubbles over.
R.L. Burnside, left. His grandson Cedric on drums, right.
“I loved my Big Mama, just like I loved my Big Daddy.” Cedric reflects on his grandmother and R.L.’s wife, Alice Mae Burnside.
He has returned to his seat after stirring the peas and setting the lid to the side. Shaquonna is back in the house, leaning over the back of the couch, her eyes fixed on Cedric, like mine.
“Big Mama was the sweetest lady.” Cedric’s voice was light.
“What do you remember about her?” I ask him.
He describes a scene from a thousand Mississippi mornings.
* * *
A pot clangs — soon followed by the soft crack of an egg, the blunt clink of a plate on a countertop, the sound of a fork in motion.
It’s early, around 4:30 in the morning. The sun isn’t up yet, but Alice Mae Burnside is. She moves around the kitchen with precision, her feet and hands in sync like drums. She hums to herself. The smell of Jack Mackerel creeps through the house. The bite of sliced onion cuts sharp and hangs heavy. A pot of white rice bubbles and pops.
Alice Mae knows it won’t be long before the house stirs. The sound and smell of cooking food will do that. There will soon be 16 children — or 12, or 19, depending on the day — Cedric among them, all energetic and hungry.
“The house we stayed in was a sharecropper house,” Cedric tells me. “Like, a shotgun house. It had four rooms, and when I say four rooms, I mean four rooms.” He pauses for effect. “Total.”
Through most of his adolescent and teenage years, Cedric grew up in and around Chulahoma. The main house that he lived in (the family moved between a few) had a kitchen and living room, two bedrooms, a porch, and a lot of outside. The elders in the family — primarily R.L., Alice Mae, and Cedric’s mother, Linda — kept a garden out back. Sometimes Cedric worked alongside them. More often he watched in wonder close by.
“I used to love the smell of the fresh dirt,” he says. “That smell when you first plow up that garden. Me and my uncle Gary used to just sit out and watch.”
Around Cedric and Gary were anywhere from 20 to 30 other folks — Cedric’s two siblings, Sonya and Cody, and a legion of cousins, aunts, uncles, and family friends. Like many other black families making their way in Mississippi in the 1980s and 1990s, the Burnside family lived a strained life. Until Cedric was 13, the family house did not have running water.
“No bathtub, no sinks. None of that,” he tells me. “We hauled water for a bunch of years. … We had to walk to our neighbor’s.” Cedric explains the nearest source of fresh water was a neighbor’s house a quarter of a mile away, the next nearest a mile further than that. “We walk three, four ...” — his voice gets louder as the distance gets longer — “five, six miles sometimes. I know because we had to tote them water jugs on our back.” He smiles and chuckles to himself, though it didn’t seem from humor or amusement. “We did what we had to do.”
“How often do you go back?” I had asked him in an earlier conversation over barbecue from a soul food restaurant in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
”I try not to go back,” he said quickly, almost before I could finish.
“You try not to,” I repeated him.
“I try not to go back. There were some chaotic situations there; and every time I see the house I think about those situations, the things we had to go through, all the people that stayed in that house, that slept on the floor and slept on couches, the struggles that my mama and Big Mama went through in that house. I don’t need to go back to remember that.”
Reflecting on that conversation, I ask him, “What’s your happiest memory of then? … What’s the happiest memory of you and Big Mama?”
A thin smirk creeps over Cedric’s face. This one is for real.
“Me and my Big Mama, we used to trade $20 every year on our birthdays. She would give me $20 on my birthday, and when her birthday come, I would give her $20 right back, every year until she passed.”
Holly Springs, Mississippi
* * *
I laugh, and I wonder. I wonder how he manages to do both, to hold dearly to those times that make him smirk and feel light, while wanting to let go of the ones that make him quiet and dark. I wonder how he makes sure to remember what he wants to remember, and move on from what he wants to forget. I wonder if he actually wants to forget, if there is some feeling that will meet him halfway. I wonder, and I wonder, but I stay quiet. The house does, too.
“My Big Mama passed in 2008,” he continues. “Yeah, 2008. She just, she just died.” He waits for the right word to find him. “Peacefully.”
Cedric says a few more things and then stops. Shaquonna has joined us at the table. She sits across from me and close to him. She leans in and grabs his hand, and then mine. I close my eyes.
“Dear God,” she begins, giving thanks for the food, and for each other, and for all the memories that Cedric was laying bare, the ones he had kept pushed down, that ones he had carried and carried and carried.
She finishes, and we say, “Amen,” but all of our heads stay bowed a little longer. I guess they had some extra prayers to pray, like me.
“Bon appétit,” Cedric says without a hint of sarcasm or humor. “Them purple hull peas you eating,” he reminds me. It is time.
The house is quiet for a while, save for the phantom echo of a clanging pot, the sound of our hands in motion.
“I always tell this story about my mama,” Cedric begins. “My mama, my Big Daddy, and my Big Mama was out on the road. I think they was coming from West Memphis, and mama water broke … and so they stopped at this little clinic. She said the doctor’s last name was hell; so, I was brought into this world by Dr. Hell.” We both laugh. There was some irony somewhere in there.
Cedric talks about his Big Daddy R.L. and his Big Mama Alice Mae with wonder and reverence. They were his North Stars, lighting the path and showing the way. He talks about his mother Linda Burnside with longing. She was his compass, a close companion that helped him walk.
“Oh man, my mama was my everything.” The bottom falls out of his voice. “My everything.”
Cedric grew up with Linda. She lived in the Burnside house with R.L., Alice Mae, and all the kids. Cedric remembers being with her a lot, caring for her deeply. Their relationship lasted his whole life — or theirs — even when Cedric paid rent on his own place at 18 years old, even when he saved up enough money to move into that place at 19, even when he had to move back in the family house the same year and out for good the next one. Then and before — since that Toronto show — he had been playing for a dozen blues showmen, from Junior Kimbrough and Robert Cage to his grandad and whoever else would have him.
“Blues been paying my bills my whole life,” he had explained in earlier conversation. “The longest job I had was about two weeks, and it was at a factory.” Shaquonna and Cedric’s oldest daughter Lashiya laughed. Eventually I did too, Cedric smiling the whole time.
“Being able to go out there on the road and bring money back, it made me feel like a man. I could help my Big Daddy bring food in the house. I could help my mom buy her prescriptions, help her buy shoes and clothes for my brother and my sister. It made me feel like a father figure.”
We had talked about Cedric’s own father only briefly — a fleeting reference here and there. “I longed for my dad to be around, but he just wasn’t,” Cedric had told me. “Me and my sister took care of him in his last days. … He couldn’t talk because he had had surgery, and they had to cut out his tongue. He died with head and throat cancer.”
The conversation about his mom brings his dad up again. “I would tell him I had to go out of town, and he would write down on paper, ‘I know you gotta do what you gotta do, go ahead and do it.” Something in him opens up. “I would play songs for him, and he would tell me what he thought about them. He would just throw his thumbs up.”
I wonder, and this time I ask. “In that time when you were looking after him, do you think that was love? Had y’all smoothed things out?”
He sighs as deeply as I have ever heard him, gets quiet for a long time.
“It wasn’t love. It wasn’t nothing like I loved my dad. I did what I had to do because I had to do it.” His words were an echo.
It was 2015 when Cedric’s father died. Two years later, his mother did, too. “She was 58,” he tells me. “The doctor called. It was 4:30 in the morning … I was on the road … drove all the way from the Carolinas … crying like a little baby the whole way.”
Cedric at home playing guitar, his daughter Portrika Burnside looking on.
I hear what could be a car muttering past, but it’s hard to tell. It could have been the wind. It could have been something else. Shaquonna is again on the couch, her elbow pressed into the backrest, her body fully turned toward Cedric, her eyes fixed on him and crying. She wipes her cheeks, swipes a finger beneath her glasses, sniffs, loves.
I sit and wait.
“And the hardest thing I had to do, the hardest thing, I had a couple shows coming up. … I was going to cancel them because she had passed, but I couldn’t cancel them. I needed to make that money for the funeral.” Cedric explains that Linda had a burial insurance policy but had not satisfied the required waiting period. “It was one of the hardest feelings I ever felt.”
Where was the show?
* * *
“San Francisco, California. I flew out there four days after mama died.”
I imagine what it was like. Standing room only, I bet. It had to be. A lot of Cedric’s shows are like that. I imagine small and large groups huddled around tables crowded with half-empty plates, clapping and patting their feet off beat. I see a flickering stage light — on and off, until it just stays off. I see stragglers and loners leaning against walls, lit up by dim lights and the blues.
“It’s all right to dance a little,” I hear Cedric say — because he always says it, his lips pressed against the mic, his head jolted to the side.
Cedric tells me he was in San Francisco, the last stop on one of those stretches where he’d have too many shows in too many cities over not too many nights.
“I was just sitting there on stage, crying on stage, singing as hard as I could, but I was hurt, man. Tears in my eyes, I was hurt. … I think about that show all the time. I’m just sitting there playing and my mom, she gone, and I’m doing this show because I have to pay for her funeral.”
Cedric always keeps his guitar in arm’s reach. “I sit there on my couch, I think about the lyrics, I think about what I want them to say.”
Cedric talks about performing his music with a reverence reserved for only the most special of things, with a fondness that he had only found in family.
“Every time I go out there on stage, I know I’mma give it my all. It might be a thousand people. It might be 300 people. It might be just me and you. I’mma give it my all.”
Most people think of the blues as a style of music, perhaps as a set of tough experiences. For Cedric, the blues is more. It is flesh and bone. It is life and love. It his spirit and soul and heart.
“It’s what I am, and who I am,” he says.
When he plays, he is doing more than singing, more than drumming, more than gripping and playing his guitar. Something else is working around him, something ... heavier. A conjuring.
“Sometimes I sit there on stage, and it’s like I can feel their energy in the room. They’re watching me. I can just feel it.”
His audiences can feel it, too.
“I see the people dancing, their eyes closed.” Cedric talks with a deep sense of satisfaction. “That music takes ’em to another dimension. It takes them somewhere else. They listen at the music so hard. They dance.” There is a brief urgency in Cedric’s voice, like he’s figured out something new. “It takes me back to the juke joint days, to some of the people that came there for that music. They would dance all night long, you know, and shut their eyes and just do it because they love the music.”
Cedric’s performances are always full of emotion, spirits. They always show his heart and his soul. They show his technical mastery too. He’s been playing drums for 33 years and mostly taught himself. About 14 years ago, he added guitar to his repertoire. He taught himself that, too. He sings and writes songs. He is an encyclopedia of blues history, and a how-to guide for blues playing, and his trophy cabinet bears proof. He is the nine-time recipient of the Memphis Blues Award for Best Blues Drummer (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017) and has received three similar nods from Living Blues Magazine (2016, 2017, 2018). He has been a contributor on three Grammy-nominated projects, including his grandfather’s Burnside on Burnside (2002), Roll and Tumble by R.L. Boyce (2017), and Descendants of Hill Country (2015) with his uncle Gary; and recently a nomination all his own — for his 2018 project Benton County Relic.
“I appreciate the accolades,” he tells me, “but … I just love the music. I’ve been getting accolades my whole life. You win some, you lose some; but that don’t change how I feel about the music. It don’t change what I’m trying to do with the music.”
I talked to him two days after Benton County Relic lost its Grammy bid.
“Young man!” I shout into the phone, loud for no reason. “You 40 right now, and you gon’ live till you 86. How many records can you do in 46 mo’ years?”
He thinks. “About a hundred.” He laughs, though I suspect his estimate was only partly a joke.
“At least one of them gon’ get you a Grammy! You got time,” I laugh with him, only partly joking, too.
“I got time.”
Cedric & Gary Burnside
* * *
It doesn’t take Cedric long to finish eating, or for our conversation to shift back from his music and performances to his folks and his family. As we clear the table, we keep on talking.
“What’s the thing that Mrs. Linda taught you that you still carry with you most?” I ask him.
“She always told me to stay in my Bible and to look to God first for everything. She never would tell me anything without telling me to look to God first, no matter what the circumstances.”
The table is clean. Nothing is left but the Bible. I glance down at it, its crisp white pages, its illegible words and scribble lines, a pair of pens resting in the crease.
I can’t help but wonder if that’s how he keeps Mrs. Linda close — by keeping God close.
“Every morning (me and Shaquonna) get up, we will read Psalms 91 and 92,” he tells me, his voice again firm and full.
It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto thy name.
“I had one brother — Cody,” Cedric tells me matter-of-factly. He had mentioned his brother only a few times. Reflecting on the life and lessons of his grandfather made Cedric proud. Talking about his Big Mama made him smile. His dad made him still. His mother made him quiet. Reflecting on his only brother Cody made him something else, something different.
“May he rest in peace,” Cedric whispers.
In the moment, Cedric seems to realize something — that being on the road, playing the blues, had coursed through so much of his life, his whole life. He was born in Memphis — on the road. He had had one of his most formative experiences with R.L. in Toronto — on the road. He had learned of his mother’s death while out of town — on the road. He made the money for her funeral in San Francisco — on the road.
“I was on the road when (Cody) passed, too,” he says, his face a straight line.
Cedric on his property in Benton County.
* * *
“I was in a studio in New Orleans,” he tells me, “recording my album Hear Me When I Say. I was recording the album, and Cody called me. He told me he was having chest pains. He told me he was gon’ start working out and all that. … I told him (that would be good); walk around the track in the mornings. We talked for about 15 minutes. It was about 6 that evening.”
At 2 the next morning, Cedric got a call from his sister Sonya. She was panicked. Cody had fallen unconscious.
“She told me she couldn’t get him to say nothing.”
Not long after the first call, Cedric got a second one. Sonya was in the ambulance with Cody. They were en route to the hospital.
After the second call, a third one.
“She told me he was gone.” He clears his throat. “I was driving — I was smoking at the time — I lit up about two or three blunts, just trying to get,” he loses his words. “To get home. I just couldn’t believe it. It was just all of a sudden he died. He didn’t have no health problems that we knew about. He just had a heart attack and died, fell in the floor. He didn’t wake up from that.”
Cedric and Cody were alike and different, two sides of the same coin — or maybe the same side of different coins, however the saying goes. They both were made in the image of their Big Daddy, raised in the shadow of their mother. They both loved music. For Cedric, it was hill country; for Cody, rap.
“He used to rap all the time,” Cedric tells me. “I would be on guitar, and I would come up with something, and he would tell me, ‘Play that again, man, play it again.’ And, I would play it, and he would rap to it.”
Early in 2012, Cedric and Cody released The Way I Am, a blues-rap hybrid that was both familiar and new, like their name, like Cedric’s music and Cedric’s life. Later in 2012, Cody died.
“I miss him so much, boy,” Cedric tells me. “It was just a shock to me because he died all of a sudden. He just had a heart attack and died, fell in the floor. I think about that a lot, mane.”
Their relationship was like so many other parts of Cedric’s life. It was rich with memories and hampered by loss. It ended too soon. It finds new ways to live on and be beautiful.
“I met my wife (Shaquonna) through Cody,” Cedric tells me, his eyes finally full again, his voice hopeful and lifted. “We was introduced a bunch of years ago through him.” He laughs. Shaquonna does, too.
The two had met in the early 2000s and eventually took interest in each other.
“It was maybe in 2010 or 2011 when we actually started getting together and hanging out a little bit more,” Shaquonna explains. “(Cedric and Cody) always made me feel like I was part of the family.”
Since then, Cedric and Shaquonna have married and now live together in Benton County.
Much of Cedric’s life still plays out on the road. Now, when he comes and goes — whether from Oxford to Hattiesburg, whether from Los Angeles to Europe — she is with him. In a life that has been about the blues and family, about loss and love, about legacy and surviving, about saving things and letting things go, she is his partner and complement. She is his friend and confidant. She has connected with his three daughters—Portirka, Corlilla, and Lashiya Burnside. She is their friend and confidant, too.
“In the next year and a half, maybe two years, we pretty much thinking that we’ll start our own family. … I have thought about wanting a son, every man wants a son. But we’ll be happy with what God gives us,” Cedric says, Shaquonna lending her full endorsement.
I look at my watch.
“Beside the blues, who is Cedric?” I ask, knowing my time is rounding to an end — or at least an intermission.
With a confident, but unassuming, tone, Cedric outlines a set of interests that, at first, strike me as surprising; but then quickly all make sense.
“I’m a outside person. I love to explore the woods. … I did martial arts for a good 10 years, started out with jiu jitsu … did TanSu karate … did kung fu, got into weapons training, weapons like staff and stick training.”
“You do guns, too?” I ask, already knowing — and, I mean really, really already knowing — the answer.
He answers my knowing question with a knowing question of his own.
“You wanna shoot?”
Cedric stands with his youngest daughter, Portrika, as she aims at a target. His middle daughter, Corlilla, looks on.
* * *
Down the cinder block steps, a gray van with a Benton County tag to the left, a fire pit filled with ashes and soot to the right, a straight line of concrete blocks down the middle, leading to the road. Trees on the other side.
Something called an “arctic blast” makes outside cold. Shaquonna rubs her arms together, rocks from side to side, pulls her hands into the sleeves of her coat. I squeeze my fists tight in my pockets.
Cedric aims the Mossberg shotgun calmly at a blue plastic cup draped over a stake jutting from the ground about 15 yards away.
His shot echoed. The cup spun around. Before it settled, Cedric shot again.
I took my turn, took the gun from Cedric. He told me to focus in, told me how it should rest against my shoulder, told me how to move my fingers, then stepped back and away.
It took me a long time to get it, but when I got it I knew.
I felt it — deep, indistinct but real, like I had known it before, like I had known him before, like it seem like I might know him forever. Like déjà vu. Like going to Memphis. Like the chariot coming. Like family. Like kitchens and porches and gardens, like the land, like the hills, like the country.