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Learning Every Day: Kent Burnside & the New Generation, May 23 at the Redstone Room PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 21 May 2008 02:31

Kent Burnside Kent Burnside is the grandson of blues legend R.L. Burnside, the nephew of blues musicians Duwayne and Dan Burnside, and the cousin of blues performer Cedric Burnside. Yet during a recent phone interview, the 36-year-old Kent recalls that when he decided to finally embark on his own professional blues career in 2006, his inspiration for doing so wasn't one of his famed family members.

"What actually inspired me," he says, "was Samuel Jackson."

In writer/director Craig Brewer's 2007 movie Black Snake Moan, the actor was cast as an aging blues man in rural Mississippi, a role modeled, in look and voice, on Burnside's grandfather. (Near the film's climax, Jackson performs a version of R.L.'s song "Stack-O-Lee.") And during filming, says Burnside, Jackson "had this party for the movie, and I got the chance to meet him."

He also had the chance to play for him. With a number of blues musicians performing at the gathering, Burnside remembers, "My cousin was playing, and my sister told him [Jackson] that I played guitar, too, and he was like, ‘Man, I'd like to listen to that.' So I ended up playing there, and he was like, ‘Man, you are good.'

"And after my grandpa passed," which occurred during Black Snake Moan's filming in September of 2005, "I knew this was what he really wanted me to do. And deep down inside, I wanted to do it. So I just took the chance."

It was a chance that paid off. The Des Moines-based Kent Burnside and his band, the New Generation - performing at the Redstone Room on May 23 - have toured extensively over the past two years, performing a blend of traditional Mississippi Delta blues and what the artist calls "a little bit of everything. Blues is my main thing that I really love to do, but I play a little rock. I love Elvis, I'll do a little Jimi Hendrix ... . Anything."

Raised in Mississippi, where he was frequently in the presence of his grandfather's musician friends, Burnside says, "I grew up around a lot of the great artists, you know. Listening to them playing out of their houses, they'd have a nice little crowd over ... . People just enjoying the music. But as a kid, believe it or not, I hated listenin' to the blues. It was kind of forced on me, because every weekend we would have parties, and the kids always had to help serve sandwiches and stuff."

"But after a while," he continues, "it just kind of rubbed off on me. I just kept listenin' and listenin', and I just kept watchin' the people, seeing how much enjoyment they were getting out of it."

Kent Burnside The young Burnside also realized how much enjoyment there was in performing, or at least pretending to perform. "I'd just grab a stick and step up with them and be playing with the stick," he says with the laugh. "And after a while, I got tired of playing with the stick, and used to sneak out and grab the guitars. And they realized, you know, ‘Somebody's messing with the guitars,' because I kept breaking the strings."

He laughs again. "They saw that, you know, I really wanted to learn."

Though he had no formal training on the guitar, Burnside says, "I watched my grandfather mostly all the time," and quickly learned to adopt elements of R.L.'s guitar style.

"My grandfather didn't use a pick," he says. "He used his fingers; he did a lot of finger-pickin'. And most people, that's the first thing they realize - I don't play with a pick. I play a lot of lead [guitar], but I can make the same sound that people make with a pick with my thumb. I use my thumb to play every note, and actually, I'm pretty good with it, you know? I don't know how I do it, but it comes out clear."

With continued practice came growing appreciation for his grandfather's work, and the work of many others. "I loved listening to Buddy Guy, Albert King ... you know, just tons of blues," says Burnside. "But I loved different kinds of music. I listened to a lot of country, rock, Elvis ... . I listened to all kinds of stuff. When you limit yourself, you don't grow. And I learned every day. I still learn every day.

"As I got older," he continues, "my grandfather told me, ‘You've got a talent.' He said, ‘You should go for it. And if you don't make it, you don't. But you've got the right spirit, the right heart for it. I think you'll be okay.'"

Despite playing occasional backup for his grandfather and uncles, though, it was many years before Burnside sought a professional career of his own. "I've been playing all my life," he says, "but I always had a regular job. I worked for Wonder Bread, for the USDA ... . I knew I had to have something to fall back on, you know, just in case the music didn't make it."

Yet if Samuel L. Jackson's appraisal inspired Burnside to pursue a musical career, an encounter with Mississippi bluesman Jimbo Mathus - a longtime admirer of R.L. - solidified his decision.

"I met up with Jimbo when he was playing in Ames, Iowa. I went to watch him, and he talked me into doing a couple of songs." After the concert, says Burnside, "he said, ‘I like the way you play. You've got the right heart.' And he told me, ‘We're gonna be at Buddy Guy's,' and he asked me, would I come up there and play with him?"

Burnside accepted the offer to play at the famed Chicago blues club - "I ended up going and doing the whole show," he says of the concert - and was subsequently asked to join Mathus, and Guy himself, on a California tour. "I played at the Fillmore [in San Francisco], which was very, very exciting," he says. "I'm like, ‘Oh, man, this is my first show and I'm playing for thousands of people.' And it turned out great."

That first performance led to Burnside touring with Mathus for more than a year. "I got to play all these places and meet so many people," he says. "It was exciting that people just loved my music, and I knew that sooner or later I was gonna be able to do my own thing."

Kent Burnside During a return trip to California in 2006, Burnside finally had his chance. "What happened was a guy booked me in California," he says, "and I didn't even have a band. He said, ‘I just want you to come on up,' and he wanted to book all these shows, and I'm like, ‘Well, I don't have a band.' And he said, ‘Well, get a band together.'"

Burnside laughs. "So I took on about seven or eight shows, and then I had two months to get a band together."

With the contacts he'd made over the previous year, though, Burnside says that finding musicians wasn't especially difficult. "I'd see people at the shows and they'd be like, ‘Man, if you ever want us to play for you, here's my number,' and so I had about 20 or 30 numbers. So I just kind of looked through the numbers - I wanted clean-cut guys that, you know, just love the music - and I called 'em up.

"And there you go," he adds with a laugh.

With two months before their debut as Kent Burnside & the New Generation - composed of lead vocalist and guitarist Burnside, Jacob Best (percussion), Emmet Butts (bass guitar), Ren Olstrand (rhythm guitar), Gabe Meyer (lap steel), Rich Wilcox (violin and harmonica), and Kent's uncle Dan Burnside (bass guitar) - the group's frontman admits that, "At first I was like, ‘Man, how am I gonna do this? In two months?'

"But these guys showed a lot of dedication," he continues. "I mean, some of them drove four-and-a-half, five hours to practice. And I play all instruments, you know. The drums not too good, but I knew what I wanted to show them, so I just put all the music together and showed them what I wanted."

Following the group's California debut, they were quickly booked into a tour in Utah, and as Burnside says, "It just took off from there." Kent Burnside & the New Generation perform regularly throughout the Midwest and South - their schedule can be found at ( - and the band has released two CDs: last year's Cotton Field Disco and the new Country Boy with City Dreams.

"I am a country boy," says Burnside. "I am. But I always wanted big things in life. I was born in the country, but I didn't want to just stay there. I knew there was more for me and I deserved it, and I got it. And I just feel so good about it, you know? And I'm gonna do like my grandfather said. ‘I'm gonna play for the rest of my life.'"


Kent Burnside & the New Generation play the Redstone Room at 9 p.m. on Friday, May 23. Tickets are $5, and more information is available by visiting (

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