Growing up in the hill country of northern Mississippi during the '70s and '80s, Duwayne Burnside didn't know much about Prince, Earth, Wind & Fire or other pop acts of the day. "We was cut off from that," he says by cell phone from his home out in the country near Holly Springs, not far from where his late father, R.L. Burnside, used to live. "In my house, it was blues music pretty much all the time."
This was before R.L. was discovered in the early '90s by Fat Possum Records and began to tour the world. Back then he was just Daddy, the guy who farmed some, fished a bunch and played a droning, hypnotic style of blues indigenous to the small, impoverished region between the Delta and Memphis.
Duwayne and his extended network of brothers and cousins, many of whom played music as a matter of course, looked forward to weekend parties and Sunday picnics when R.L. and friends like Junior Kimbrough would fry up the catfish, bust out the moonshine, turn up their little amps and rock the house.
How he came to learn the blues, Duwayne Burnside can't really say. "It was a gift. God give it to me," Duwayne drawls in a heavy Southern accent. "I learned hanging around the old peoples, but it was in me already. I just picked it up on the fly, sat in front of peoples, played with my brothers and cousins, just learnin' the moves."
Duwayne moved to Memphis when he was 17 and got married a couple years later. He opened a bar/restaurant, where he cooked in the kitchen as well on stage. While in the big city, he became exposed to the more urban side of the blues, gigging with such kings as B.B., Albert and Little Jimmy. About three years ago, Duwayne, an admitted country boy at heart, returned to his home turf and, funny enough, that's when his career started to take off. He keeps a steady and geographically expanding tour regimen and has released a handful of well-received independent albums.
Duwayne's sound is a rough-and-tumble amalgam of riffy blues-rock and biting Southern soul, with a helping of the R.L.'s spooky and peculiar drone style. "I don't wanna leave that [hill country] music die," Duwayne declares. "I'm gon' keep it always goin'. I'm R.L.'s son. It's good that the new generation's playin' it."
But Duwayne also believes that the music he grew up on must grow and change. I asked him this: If he and his peers played it exactly the same as the old guys, might hill-country blues die then, too? "I think it would," he responds.
Duwayne has also dusted off another tradition — those Sunday picnics. He and his band set up a small stage and get the jams going. It's two bucks for a can of beer, $2.50 for a fish sandwich. The first couple of parties gathered about 80 folks, he says, and he hopes to set up his touring schedule so that he can be back home on Sundays. "Oh man, we have a time," he tells me with a laugh. "You got to come up some Sunday."