We all owe debts to our parents; and most aspiring artists are saddled with iconic influences. But in young bluesician Duwayne Burnside's case, the shadow cast by his progenitor is longer than most. Even beyond death, the legacy of his father, country blues master R.L. Burnside, remains formidable.
Growing up in the north Mississippi hill country, Duwayne Burnside's daddy learned guitar from his neighbor, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and played in the juke joint next door, owned by Junior Kimbrough. These titans' primitive, rhythmic country-blues shudder and shake like a tarpaper shack in a hurricane, threatening to fly apart at any moment. This particular slide guitar-fueled juke blues style lingered in semi-obscurity until the 1990s, when Fat Possum Records began releasing albums by the area's sexagenarian blues artists, the biggest of which was R.L. Burnside. Though he died last year, Duwayne's father looms over everything he does.
"I think sometimes when they come they're kinda looking for me to do like he did. And a lot older people who were fans come and listen. So that's part of why I keep his music going on while still playing my own thing. I'm gonna spice some of it up and I'm going to keep some of it like it is," Burnside explains in his thick, hill country accent. "You've got to keep that kind of feeling going. I'm trying to keep it on. My hill country is going to be hill country, but it's going to be newer kind of stuff to keep the hill country going on -- keep it growing."
Indeed, listening to the younger Burnside's studio debut, Under Pressure, one is struck by how much soul and Chicago blues creep into tracks such as his rattling cover of Albert King's "I Got the Blues," or his white-hot take on his father's "Bad Luck City." "It's got kind of like a mellow hills blues, and it's got blues rock to it, too, but it's still got that same hill country sound and feeling of rawness," he says.
Burnside's retronuevo approach incorporates a range of blues styles, from Muddy Waters and Lightning Hopkins to Jimi Hendrix. But one thing remains constant about his guitar playing: it's LOUD.
"This one time, the sound guy comes up to me at Tipitinas in New Orleans, and he says, 'I don't ever have no problem with you, because the only thing you ask for is where the volume is. You don't ask me for nothing else,'" Burnside relates with a chuckle.
Though he's been playing for years, Burnside's career got a boost when he joined his friends Cody and Luther Dickinson (sons of famous Memphis producer Jim Dickinson) in the North Mississippi Allstars. While based in the hill country sound, NMAS injects a bit of boogie and a predilection for improvisational blues that's made them popular on the jam band circuit. Burnside played with them for almost three years before setting off again on his own.
"When I first got with the Allstars, nothing hadn't happened really, and we didn't have nobody come see us play. When I first started, Cody told me, 'Don't let that discourage you because there ain't nobody here,'" he recalls. "I said, 'We'll just make that happen.' I was just there to make sure they got where they were going, that's all. Anybody wants to help their friend out, but once they got to where they are, that's when it was time for me to go off and do my own thing.
"They helped me and I helped them," Burnside explains. "It got me to another level. It got me up there where I need to be paying attention to a lot more things that I needed to be doing."
Back on the road, performing with his backing band, the Mississippi Mafia, Burnside tries to weigh how his father's heritage has impacted his own, but falters. Stopping and starting several times, he finally suggests, "Folks be saying that, but I'm my own man and my own thing. I love my father, and I don't care what nobody say. He made it happen, so I don't have no problem with that. I'm his son."
We all struggle with our genetic and familial legacies, trying to forge our own identity from our inheritance. For Duwayne Burnside, the furnace has six strings and is reheated every night, pouring forth a mixture of old and new.
"Sometimes I kinda --" Burnside says, faltering again before recovering with a good natured laugh. "But it's all good. They sure are some big feet, though. For real."
Duwayne Burnside & the Mississippi Mafia play the Double Door Inn on Saturday, Feb. 18, at 10pm. Tickets are $10. Go to www.doubledoorinn.com for more info.