Cedric Burnside, Mississippi music legend, on his family legacy: ‘These days everybody has the blues’

When we wrapped up season four of the Reckon Interview, things were looking promising. COVID numbers were on the decline and people were gearing up for hot vax summer.

Instead, things took a turn for the worse. August alone was filled with scenes of hospitals packed with people infected by Delta, refugees desperately trying to hold onto U.S. flights leaving Afghanistan, devastating damage by Hurricane Ida in Louisiana and Mississippi.

So it’s no wonder then that Cedric Burnside says that everyone, these days, can understand the blues. He should know. Burnside has been recognized by the Blues Music Awards as the best drummer in blues seven times. He’s been nominated for four Grammys. And this year he was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship for his work preserving the traditions of Mississippi Hill Country Blues.

Cedric Burnside grew up in the Mississippi hill country not far from Memphis, Tennessee. His grandfather, R.L. Burnside, is a legendary figure in Mississippi music history. And Cedric began touring with him when he was just 13 years old.

The sound that was developed and honed by the Burnsides can be heard in bands like the North Mississippi All-stars, the Black Keys and the Black Crows.

And on this episode of the Reckon, we discuss Cedric’s new album, “I Be Trying,” which is out now. And we also discussed whether his grandfather, R.L., was able to get the recognition that he deserved and what keeps Cedric rooted in Mississippi.

And of course, what to do when we’re all feeling the blues.

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Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.

Reckon: Your new record, “I Be Trying,” I believe you started recording this in February of 2020. So just before everything shut down because of COVID, is that right?

Cedric Burnside: That is correct.

Reckon: But a lot of the songs on this album, you know, in some ways, feel like a roadmap for this last year. Obviously this was pre COVID. This was pre George Floyd. This was pre everything that we went through in 2020. But tell me what was on your mind when you wrote “The World Can Be So Cold and “Step In.”

Burnside: I really wrote, started writing my music, man, way before the pandemic. It’s kinda crazy how it kind of ties into what’s going on in the world then and today.

But “The World Can Be So Cold,” you know, man, I have been through many crazy bad situations, as well as good, but I have been through a lot of bad situations and I know that it’s hard to cope with, but I do know that the world don’t owe you anything. You know, you have to find ways to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and then continue the journey. That song came to me, you know, just thinking those thoughts and going through those situations.

That’s what made me write that song. And it just so happened to be a song that people can relate to these days.

Reckon: Yeah, definitely. I mean, particularly right now, you know, you look around Mississippi, you look around the South and you see COVID numbers spiking again, all over the place. But then, you know, you have these other songs that you tell people to keep pushing and that love is the key.

How were you able to kind of maintain your own sanity and sense of purpose in the last year? You know, when you weren’t able to tour, when you weren’t able to get out there and play music in front of live audiences.

Burnside: I have to say it was quite an experience. I like to think that I just had to put my hands in some of everything. Me and my wife, we started adding an addition onto the little house that we got.

And so we didn’t know how to build anything, so we just watched a bunch of DIY videos and, and just tried to do some stuff on our own. We made every mistake you can possibly think of. And then some. We got most of it up.

So I was kind of dabbling in that, you know, trying to keep my mind off of awful COVID. You know, I got into a bunch of different things.

A friend of mine had another friend that was a falconer. And so he knew a lot about birds and so I got into birds, believe it or not. That sounds weird, but I got very interested in birds of prey. And so I started doing that and his name is Greg Davis, I’m his apprentice and he’s my sponsor. So right now, I’m kinda studying to become a falconer.

So I kinda got into that. Just different things to try to keep my mind occupied and not think about the awful times that we was going through during COVID. I, I don’t think we out — even right now, today. You know, we still in that fight.

Reckon: Yeah. What has it been like there in your part of Mississippi? Are people getting vaccinated? Are people masking up? Are people worried about it?

Burnside: Well I would definitely say they are worried. Some are vaccinated and there are a lot that hadn’t gotten vaccinated yet. I don’t really know the reason why they haven’t got vaccinated, but I can say, when I checked the last time, I think it was over 1300.

I think it was a couple of days ago was over 1300 cases in Mississippi alone in one day. I’m pretty sure that that went way higher, you know, since three or four days ago, you know.

Reckon: One of the things I really love about this record is that your daughter joins you for a song, you cover one of your grandfather’s songs, and so you kind of have like this little window into the blues as the Burnside family business. What was it like to try to capture so many generations of music in one album?

Cedric Burnside: It was a bunch of fun. One being, that’s what I do. It’s what I love. It’s who I am. I’m Hill Country right down to the bone. And growing up with R.L. Burnside, you really can’t help but to be. Whether you enter the music [business] or not. But one thing I always love to do is I love to pay tribute to my Big Daddy, R.L. Burnside.

The tribute I did on this album, “I Be Trying,” was “Bird Without a Feather.” The reason I chose that song is because I never hear anybody do that song. And it’s such a Hill Country song because of the unorthodox rhythm of a guitar and vocals.

I used to love to hear my granddad as well as see him perform this song. It was one of my favorites and I have a lot of favorites of his. But that was one that I used to love to see his aura, you know, his energy, as he’d play that song. And I decided to put that song on there for a tribute. But I always add a song, no matter what album I put out, I always try to put a song of my Big Daddy, R.L. Burnside on it, just to pay tribute to him.

And you notice that I added a Junior Kimbrough song on this album as well, because Junior Kimbrough was one of the guys that I grew up around too and played with a lot. And so he, R.L. Burnside, my Big Daddy, and Junior Kimbrough, they kind ofshowed me the ropes coming up as a kid, to a teenager, to a man.

Reckon: And then what’d it mean for your daughter to be on the album with you? Do your girls like music as much as you did growing up? Do they play with you? Have you all been able to pass the time playing music together?

Burnside: Well, believe it or not, man, we all sit down sometimes, mainly my youngest daughter, but I bought them all guitars when they was young. And they still have guitars today. But my youngest daughter seemed to be in to it a little bit more than my two oldest daughters. Like I said, they all love music. But I think she just really wanted a little bit more, you know? And so I’m just trying to give her all I can give her while I’m in this world. And hopefully she can take it in and keep it going when I’m dead and gone.

I love to play music with her and I’m so glad that she wanted to go in the studio with me. And sing this song with me. It was amazing. It was a beautiful experience for her, as she told me and she’s looking forward to doing more.

Reckon: And she’s about the age that you were when you, I guess first started touring with your granddad, R.L. Burnside. Is that right?

Burnside: She’s just turned 16 on July 25th. I was 13 when I went on my first tour, so I was quite young.

Reckon: And y’all went up to Toronto all the way from Mississippi. What was that like?

Burnside: Oh, wow. Besides, uh, being a young teenager that never, ever left Mississippi before, I have to say it was scary. It was fun. Adrenaline pumping. All of that in one. I was so used to playing in the juke joints in Mississippi, because that’s what I grew up doing. And the people who used to come to the juke joints, I was so used to being around them. So I got used to playing and so it wasn’t anything to me to play for them. But when I left Mississippi, not only leave to go to another state, I went to another country, and I had never been out of Mississippi before trying to play music.

And so I was scared. I had butterflies. I was wondering how was they gonna receive the music and my Big Daddy, I remember him telling me, “just do what you do at the club. Don’t worry about it. Just do what you do at the club and we’ll be okay.” And we played that one song, you know, after we played the first song, the people started clapping and whistling and hollering and shouting. And I was like, “wow,” the butterflies went away and here I am today, I’m still laying it down as my Big Daddy say.

Reckon: And you grew up in your Big Daddy’s house, you know, with a house full of musicians, right? There’s a lot of musicians in your family. What was Mississippi like growing up at that time?

Burnside: You know, as a kid, not really knowing a whole lot, it was interesting. It was definitely fun. I tell this story all the time. Growing up poor—I know a lot of people grew up poor—but to me, growing up without running water, without a bathtub, a toilet, it was a normal life to me. Like, I didn’t know that everybody’s supposed to have a bathtub, everybody’s supposed to have a toilet, because I grew up without none of that. It was normal to me.

The music made me happy when they played the house parties. And I think that’s what got me through, as well as other grandkids. You know, it got us through because the music it fed us. It fed my soul at least. And so it kept my mind occupied wanting to, you know… I can’t wait for the next house party.

I wouldn’t think about all the jugs that I had on my back hauling water, or all the sticks that I cut up with the ax to have firewood. I didn’t think about that. You know, as I was doing it, I was thinking “oh, man, I can’t wait til next weekend for the house party again.” So it was normal to me and it definitely made me the man I am today.

Reckon: It seems like the juke joint culture and house party culture may be slipping away. I know you’ve played Gip’s Place, there in Bessemer, Alabama. That’s one of the few true juke joints that I’ve been to and with COVID shutting things down, how will that culture endure? I know you’ve, we’ve talked about maybe opening up a juke joint of your own. Is that something you’re still interested in doing?

Burnside: Oh, very much so, man. Very much so. I actually was playing music on my porch not long ago. And some friends came over, you know, they just enjoy theyself. We drank a little beer and smoked a little doobies and had some fun. And it made me further want to open up another juke joint just to bring that back.

You know, it was such a big part of my life. And I think about it right now, today, here in North Mississippi around the Ashland area, the Holly Springs area, you know, the Byhalia area there is no juke joint. There is no juke, joint nowhere. You will have to go to Clarksdale to find a juke joint or Mr. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes has one of the oldest ones that’s in Mississippi, but he’s like three and a half hours away from me. So I want to bring that back to that to the Hill Country. Hopefully someday sooner than later, I can, uh, you know, open up a juke joint somewhere and, and bring that back. People need it.

Reckon: I know you also were just awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Foundation of the Arts. So congratulations on that. And part of that was awarded, I guess, because of how you carry forth that legacy of Hill Country blues. For our listeners who may not be familiar with the difference between Delta blues and Hill Country blues. What is that distinction in Mississippi and how have they informed each other? Do they bleed into each other?

Burnside: I like to call Hill Country blues, “feel music,” not feel as in, you know, going and chopping the field, but feel as in feeling the F E E L feel. It’s like, it’s what come out of you and it can come out of you at any given moment. That’s how to describe it.

To me, it’s the unorthodox rhythm of Hill Country blues. It don’t quite have the same rhythm as Delta blues, or Chicago blues, Texas blues. You know, it’s quite different. And most people describe it as a hypnotic droning style of music. And I agree, it kind of puts you in a trance. And that style of blues it just, to me, it does a lot for people.

I have saw people come up to me and cry on my shoulder, telling me that that music meant so much to them. And it had brought them out some dark places.

I didn’t really realize how special this music was you know, as a kid. I just knew I loved it. I loved to play it. I knew at a young age that I was going to play it for the rest of my life.

But I didn’t really know how special it was. Like, what did it really mean to me? As I got older, I think I was in my early twenties, when this lady come up to me and she was crying. And she laid her head on my shoulder and she was crying and she told me how much it meant to her and that it brought her out of some dark spots, dark places.

She thanked me and my Big Daddy and Kenny for playing that music. And I think it dawned on me then—I was about 22, 23 years old—it really dawned on me that this music is really, really special. Even today as I keep Hill Country blues going, not because I’m trying to fill shoes but because it’s what I love. It’s who I am.

And I think it was 2019, uh, I did a European tour and I went to France and there was a guy who came up to me and he did the exact same thing. My wife was with me. My manager and drummer, Reed Watson, was with me. And he came up to me and he was crying. And he was crying and I didn’t really know what was going on. And he told me, he say, “your music really touched my soul.” And he said, “me and my wife used to listen to your music all the time. I still do, but my wife, she passed away, you know, about a year ago.” And he just, man, he was just in tears. He was so happy to see me. And he was so happy to hug me. But for the most part, he was so happy to hear the music. He wanted to hear Hill Country blues. And that’s what he came there for. And he let it be known.

I’m so happy and proud to keep this music going as well as keep writing new Hill Country blues songs. And also keep Junior and my Big Daddy, R.L. Burnside, let them know how much I appreciate them by paying tribute to their music as well.

Reckon: I guess over the course of just a few years, you lost your Big Daddy, your grandmother, a brother, your father, and your mother. And, you know, I wonder how that affected your music? And you talked about carrying on R.L.’s legacy, but do you feel kind of the weight of more of your family on your shoulders when you’re playing too?

Burnside: I miss my mom, dad, brother. I miss them so much. You know, my uncle Calvin Burnside, he was by far my favorite uncle and he passed in 2015, a couple months after my dad passed.

I feel the pressure with my family, just because, I used to watch my Big Daddy be the backbone of the family. He was always there for the family, no matter who. He raised his kids, he raised grandkids and he raised some of his great grandkids, you know? So he was definitely the backbone of the family.

And I used to see people go to him all the time. You know, they need help for food. They need help, you know, moving something. And it didn’t matter if it was family or somebody just that was on the street. My Big Daddy was there for them. And I see myself doing that same thing, just being there for people.

And that’s one of the reasons why I wrote the song “Love is the Key,” because we have a tendency to talk about love, a lot. All over the world. We talk about it, but we don’t implement it as much as we talk about it. And so I try my best to implement more love these days than just talk about it. Just to let people know that I’m there. We all go through hard times. We all fall and have to, you know, get back up. But we all don’t have that help to get back up sometimes, you know? And so I just want to be that help if I can. I guess it’s not for everybody because some people don’t want to be helped in this world. But if I can help, I will love to try to be there for whoever I can be there for just to implement love more and not just talk about it.

Reckon: What do you think that is that keeps you rooted in that? You’ve been playing internationally since you were 13. You’ve been recognized as the best drummer in blues more times than I can count on my fingers. You’re one of the most acclaimed musicians in the business. It seems like if you had wanted to, you could have had any opportunity to go live in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or Paris and play somewhere else. What keeps you rooted in Mississippi and in your family and in your community, when some other musicians might’ve chosen their talent as a way out?

Burnside: It’s just something about Mississippi. I’ve always been here my whole life and I’ve always loved Mississippi and I done been some of the most beautiful places in the world, but nothing makes me want to leave Mississippi. It’s just something about the air here, to me. It’s something about the earth. I feel like there’s so much great energy in the earth and so much unique energy in the earth that I feel and don’t know anything about that energy. It just feels so awesome to me. When I walk in the woods, I know you can hear birds anywhere, but it’s just something about the birds that’s here. And it’s something about the woods that’s here. These hills that’s right here in Mississippi that is so special to me. When I walk through them, it’s just beautiful. It makes me want to sit down and have a picnic or a sit down and just play my guitar. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. I just know that I love it.

Reckon: Well, I mean, there’s a pretty good case to be made that all of American music is indebted to the people of Mississippi. But you know, that doesn’t mean that the money or the success or the acclaim always makes its way back to the Hill Country or to the Delta.

Is it bittersweet knowing how much your grandfather’s music lives on and may be more popular than ever, but that, you know, sometimes it’s bands from Ohio that have more financial success with this sound than he was able to?

Burnside: I know that, my Big Daddy, he don’t mind people doing his music. I do know that. And neither do I.

He didn’t make money like he should have made playing his own music. And that goes for a lot of musicians out there and that’s not here today. You know, Junior Kimbrough was one of them. And think about Fred McDowell. I think he was a Hill Country king, you know he was great. This family didn’t get much money off of it.

Those things happen. Are they right? No, I don’t think they’re right. I think people should get what they deserve and especially what they work hard for. But I have to say this, I am glad that they made music good enough and special enough for people that love that music that want to put it out there, you know, that want to keep that music going.

And that’s one thing that I always do is thank my Big Daddy. R.L. Burnside, for opening the door for the Burnside family. And not just the Burnside family, but for other musicians who love this style of music, Hill Country blues. I thank him. That’s just one of the reasons why I like to pay tribute to him on every album that I put out, is to let him know that I love him for it and I appreciate him so much. And I am going to keep it going. As long as I’m living, I’m going to keep the Hill Country blues going.

And I want to be able to pay my bills while I do it, you know. But even if I didn’t get paid for my music, I would still play it. And it’s nice to be able to get paid doing something that you would do, even if you wasn’t getting paid. So, I love that.

Reckon: You mentioned our friend, Reed Watson, friend of the show. We love Reed and love the folks over there at Single Lock Records who you worked on this album with. And you also produced it with Boo Mitchell, who’s the son of a legendary producer, Willie Mitchell, there in Memphis. So that’s neat, cause you’ve got… Single Lock is kind of the next generation of Muscle Shoals music, you’re the next generation of Hill Country, and then, Boo is next generation of kind of Memphis music, all working together on an album. How do you carry on that tradition, but also figure out ways to work in your own sound and make it uniquely yours and not, something that is the sound of y’all’s parents’ generation or grandparents’ generation?

Burnside: What I do I get from my Big Daddy, in a sense. Just growing up around him my whole life. They say if you’re around a person enough, you start looking like them, you start talking like them and you might start acting like them. I was around him so much and so I picked up a lot of his ways. And he also used to play a bunch of the old school music for me as a kid. That old school sound, even though I listened to other music, you know, I listened at a little rap. I listened at a little funk. Even though I listened at that, my heart was stuck on the old school blues that he would play me. Like Fred McDowell, you know, and Lightning Hopkins and Muddy Waters. And Howlin’ Wolf. He would play that music for me, and I would just get captivated in it. I would just get stuck in it as a young kid.

And I think that kind of grew with me. It stuck with my heart and the music that I write. Even though it’s modern music, it also has an old feel to it because that’s my heart. My heart is the old school. It’s what I love. It’s what I grew up around. It’s what I present. I’m in the modern days so I still like to have my sound, but I think it’s going to always have an old feel to it.

Reckon: I’m curious, do you think… You know, you talked about carrying water and growing up poor and I don’t think that’s necessarily essential to blues music, but do you think that your daughters will have the same sort of feel for blues music that you do if they didn’t grow up the same way that you did? Not that you want them to grow up poor, but you think that they can get the blues if they didn’t grow up the way you did?

Cedric Burnside: To be totally honest with you, man, they done had the blues because there has been times where the lights got cut off and we had to use candles. There has been some points where the water had got cut off and we actually had to go buy water. You know, we didn’t have to haul it, but we had to go buy it from Dollar General or wherever that sold water. So it has happened. Not to the significance of what I went through as a kid, putting the belt on your shoulder and having to walk a mile, mile and a half, to get water and a mile, mile and a half, back.

I hope they don’t ever have to see anything that bad, but they do know what the blues is.

Reckon: Have you ever been tempted, I guess to… maybe ‘sell out’ is the wrong word, but like, have you ever been tempted to use your talent and go commercial and chase after more money? Or is the commitment to the sound the most important thing?

Burnside: I would have to say, I have been tempted. Not as much playing my music, but when I collaborated with other musicians. There have been offers on the table to “add this to your music and add that to your music, and we’ll give you this contract. You do this to your music, we’ll give you this kind of contract.”

So yeah, I have been tempted, but I always loved my sound. The raw sound is who I am and it represents where I come from. And, whether you like it or not, it’s who I am. And I don’t want to take nothing away from that. You know, it’s sort of the way I stay grounded to who I am is do what I know. Play the music the way I grew up doing it.

My Big Daddy used to play the music the same way even before he had two guitars. Before he got Kenny Brown and drums, he used to play guitar and drums. There used to be him and my dad, Calvin Jackson. And then when my dad moved overseas, it was me. Kenny Brown, he started playing with my Big Daddy before I was born, but he did not form a band with my Big Daddy before I was born. That that all came after I was born. And we got to do that together, but even then it was still just a raw sound.

You know, what you see is what you get. And what you hear is what you’re going to hear every time you see him play, you know, that raw Hill Country unorthodox sound.

Reckon: Do you know much about who taught your Big Daddy, and who he learned his music from?

Cedric Burnside: You know, he used to tell me stories. He was really good friends with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He used to tell me stories about playing together with them.

But he used to tell me that him and Mr. Fred McDowell was really, really good friends. And so he used to go over and play with Mr. Fred. And Mr. Fred would show him a few tips on the guitar. Even though he was pretty good, Mr. Fred was still showing him a few tips on the guitar as they drank moonshine and shoot craps. I will say that he got most of his tips and style from Mr. Fred McDowell. It’s not really clear to me who he grew up playing with or anything like that. But I know that some people that he played around did show him a few tips. And that was Mr. Fred McDowell that he talked about the most.

Reckon: How did you and Reed start playing together? And what made you move over to Single Lock Records?

Cedric Burnside: Over three years now, yeah, going on four years when I signed with Single Lock. And what made me want to sign with Single Lock is they didn’t want to tamper with my music. Like I said earlier, there was record companies that wanted me to add this, add harmonica—and not that I don’t like harmonica, I love it—But they wanted me to add background vocals. They wanted me to add saxophone and they just want to kind of “enrich” my music up to something that’s not me.

And Single Lock didn’t want to do that. They let the artists be the artists. And I was so happy to hear that, that I could play my music the way I hear it in my head. The way I hear it in my heart, I can play it that way. It’s greasy, it’s raw, it’s unique. It’s definitely unorthodox. And so they let me be me and I’m so grateful and happy that they let the artists be the artists.

And that’s the reason I chose ’em.

And Reed, when he practiced with me the first time, I was like, “wow.” You know, I did not know he was such a great drummer. And the reason I say that is because I done heard so many amazing drummers, you know, a lot of them say they want to play Hill Country blues. And a lot of them say that they can play the Hill Country blues just because they done heard it. But when they get up there, it’s like a deer in headlights. The rhythm is so different, you know, the changes is so different. And so they find theyself in a bit of a pickle, not knowing where to go.

And so when Reed did it for the first time, I was like, wow. It amazed me that he caught it and he held the beat down. And I thought that that was really cool. So we practiced more and more. Now we’re, this unstoppable force. This two piece that go out and if, I can, kick ass and take names.

Reckon: You know, your grandfather was a sharecropper. Most scholars seem to say that, blues was born out of the bonds of African slaves, enslaved people working in Mississippi and Alabama and places like that. And the sound of the music has endured for, I guess, for over a hundred years now. And you’ve talked about how, as long as you’re living, you’re going to make sure that the Hill Country sound continues. What is is about blues that has endured for a century when other styles of music that have come and gone?

Cedric Burnside: Just judging on all the history that I have heard about blues and all the things that I have read about the blues, the blues has always been here. Even if people knew what it was or didn’t know what it was, it’s always been here. When the slaves was in the fields and they had to talk to family members and friends, you know, the masters didn’t want them to talk. So they had to find ways to communicate to get around that, and they chose singing. You know, and a lot of people call them Negro spirituals. So they chose singing. It was the blues. They had to find ways to communicate with each other, to let each other know that they love them. To let each other know that, “I wish you were meeting me at the creek you later on tonight.” Whatever message they had to get across, they had to kind of fake it across. And the way they did that was to sing it, and it just evolved.

I think blues is, to me in my heart, is living to tell about your struggle. You know, we all have them. In these days and times, everybody have the blues. You know, It’s no color. Blues is no color in these days and times. It came from Black people. Yeah, it did. But in today everybody has the blues, and it don’t matter what color you are.

If you go out there and your car quit and you in the hot sun and you waiting on somebody to come pick you up, you got the blues. When your woman leave you, and you’re going through hard times and she ain’t there no more, you got the blues. Whether you know it or not. And that happens with everybody today.

Reckon: I know you wrote this record before COVID, like you said, everybody has the blues these days. Have you written any music during the last year to help you get through?

Cedric Burnside: I have. I actually wrote “Love is the Key,” the second day of recording in the studio. I wrote “Love is the key.” It was things that I was going through right before the pandemic really hit. It was just things I was going through, during the pandemic. When I finished the album is when I wrote, “Love is the Key.”

That one was written during the pandemic. And that’s kind of why I wrote it because, people don’t implement love as much as they talk about it. And at that time, everybody needed love. And even now. But specifically at that time, everybody needed love. And so I kind of wrote that song to just let people know that, you know, if you got any grudges with anybody, talk about it and get it squashed. Because, these days and times, the little petty grudges, it’s not worth it. We got bigger fish to fry. We up against something way bigger than ourselves. That was one of the reasons why I wrote that song, “Love is the Key.” Life is too short to stay mad.

You can learn more about Cedric Burnside and purchase “I Be Trying” at www.cedricburnside.net.

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