Kent Burnside Blues Band
May 3, 2024
azzle, Denver

Geography has always been important to music. Especially before advances in transportation and communication, communities developed specific local styles of music, much like accents and dialects. But music, like language, is just another form of communication. And, like language and accents, differences appeared in relatively close proximity.

Such is the case with Hill Country Blues. Mississippi is widely considered a key incubator of the blues. The popular focus of the birth of the blues is the Mississippi Delta area in the western part of the state. The area is basically the floodplain of the mighty Mississippi River. The land is flat, relatively treeless, and ideal for large-scale agriculture. Indeed, this is plantation country. But just to the east of the Delta is the Mississippi Hill Country. Here, the level ground of the Delta gives way to rolling hills, ubiquitous trees, smaller farm plots, and a different flavor of the blues.

A quick look at the land on Google Earth shows the marked difference in the terrain and vegetation.

Clarksdale, Mississippi is often denominated as the epicenter of the Delta blues. In the image above, it’s easy to see the vast farmland surrounding Clarksdale, the Mississippi River to the west, oxbow lakes throughout the region, and other remnants of the Mississippi River’s meanders in times past.

Holly Springs, Mississippi is only 75 miles northeast of Clarksdale, but the land is much different. Trees are the first thing you see, vast forests covering the rolling hills. Outside of silviculture, agriculture here is practiced on a much smaller scale. It is from these two different environments that Delta blues and Hill Country blues sprang.

The Hill Country blues sound traces its roots back to fife and drum bands of the early 20th Century. That music, in turn, is directly rooted in Africa. One of the foremost keepers of the fife and drum fame was North Mississippi musician Otha Turner who died at age 94 in 2003. He had recruited friends, family, neighbors, and anybody else interested in his old-time music to learn it and pass it on. Another pioneer of the Hill Country sound was Mississippi Fred McDowell, although his influences included plenty of Delta blues as well.

But most significant of all the Hill Country bluesmen was RL Burnside (1926 – 2005). Burnside was one of those “lost” bluesmen, known to and influential to many local blues players, but unknown in the wider world for most of his life. Early attempts to bring Burnside into the popular consciousness were only marginally successful, due in part to his raw, uncompromising style. Eventually, and through further recordings, the public finally caught on and he was able to tour beyond the Hill Country and make some dough from his talents. So, Burnside, along with one of his contemporaries, Junior Kimbrough, eventually got their unique Hill Country sound embedded into the blues psyche.

Hill Country Blues was forged in the juke joints and house parties throughout northeastern Mississippi. Most often, it’s stripped-down: guitar, bass, drums, impassioned vocals. Much of it uses just a single chord and a boon-chick-boom-chick rhythm for a trance-inducing, hypnotic effect. Imagine the packed, sweaty juke joint, at about 2 am when the local moonshine has had a chance to kick in.

The North Mississippi Allstars found success with their local Hill Country blues style in the early 21st Century with their album Shake Hands With Shorty (Artemis Records, 2001). That album included songs by McDowell, Burnside, and Kimbrough.

Historical markers on display in Holly Springs, MS

In addition to performing and writing dozens of songs, Burnside fathered 10 children and he is grandfather to many more. Many of those children and grandchildren are carrying on his tradition of Hill Country Blues. The marker above lists no less than nine Burnsides who play the blues.

Kent Burnside, the oldest grandson of RL, grew up around Holly Springs, Mississippi. As a veteran of many of RL’s house parties, he saw RL play frequently. He may not have known at the time that he was getting a one-of-a-kind blues education. Friday night at Dazzle, Kent Burnside started his first set by declaring that he planned to play some Hill Country blues and some Chicago blues. And the spirit of RL Burnside and the Mississippi Hill Country permeated the proceedings.

Kent’s set list incorporated several blues standards, original compositions, and plenty of RL Burnside tunes such as “Miss Maybelle,” “Bad Luck City” and “Things Goin’ On.” He closed with “Shake ‘Em on Down,” a Hill Country classic composed by Mississippi Fred McDowell and covered by RL and the North Mississippi Allstars as well as many others. The blues standards he played were probably more well-known to the audience. He paid tribute to Howlin’ Wolf with “I Asked for Water.” Despite Hill Country Blues’ reputation for hard partying, Kent Burnside showed a melodic, mellow side with standards such as “As the Years Go Passing By” and “I Play the Blues for You.”

Friday night’s rhythm section comprised the Brother’s Best, Jacob on drums and Colin on bass. Together with Kent on guitar and vocals, the trio cranked out various shades of blues with precision. Burnside’s guitar playing wove through the various styles, sometimes constructing a heavy blues-rock lick, other times recreating that 2 am North Mississippi jukejoint boogie. His vocals cemented his place as the leader of the band and a true blues singer.

And so, RL Burnside’s legacy lives on. Through Kent, his relatives and other bands like the North Mississippi Allstars, Hill Country blues continues to work its way into the common blues vernacular. RL Burnside’s style continues to spread throughout the blues world and many of his tunes continue to achieve the status of blues standards.

Set List
My Fault
You Better Run
Evil Going Down in My House
All Your Love I Miss Lovin’
You Keep Putting Me Down
Call My Name
Miss Maybelle
As the Years Go Passing By
Things Goin’ On
Catfish Blues
I Can Feel It
I Play the Blues For You
I Asked for Water
Bad Luck City
Goin’ Down South

The Band
Kent Burnside, vocals, guitar
Jacob Best, drums
Colin Best, bass

Stay connected to KUVO’s programs and our community! Sign up for the Oasis E-News today!

Photography by Geoff Anderson & Susan Gatschet (homepage picture)

Become a Member

Join the growing family of people who believe that music is essential to our community. Your donation supports the work we do, the programs you count on, and the events you enjoy.

Download the App

Download KUVO's FREE app today! The KUVO Public Radio App allows you to take KUVO's music and news with you anywhere, anytime!