Bobby Rush: Damn, He’s Good!
“I believe I’m the oldest black blues singer now living,” says Bobby Rush, calling from his Mississippi home. At 86 years old, he certainly could lay legitimate claim to that title. During his seven-decade career – in which he’s released almost three dozen full-length albums (and estimates he’s appeared on 397 recordings overall), Rush is still not slowing down: in August, he released his latest album, Rawer Than Raw, which he recorded by himself while in quarantine. As a result, the songs are stripped down and intimate: just Rush, his guitar, a harmonica, and his feet stomping out the time.
Exuberant for the rest of the chat, Rush becomes serious as he describes how he’s actually lucky to still be here at all. “Real kind of spiritual now,” he says. “When I was down with COVID-19 in March, they took me to the hospital. I had close to a 105-degree temperature – I’m out of my head.” It took a lengthy battle to come through that illness, but “God put his arms around me and blessed me to get over this. So many of my friends didn’t make it.”
After emerging from those dark days, and looking around at what was happening in the world at large, Rush realized he needed to create Rawer Than Raw. “The time is fitting for this [album] because it’s a hard time now,” Rush says. “Harder than it’s ever been before because of COVID-19 and the black/white thing. What other time can I put this out that’ll be this meaningful?”
On Rawer Than Raw, Rush presents five original compositions, as well as covers of songs by Skip James, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Robert Johnson. “I decided to look through my catalog,” he says of the song selections. “I’m by myself, and I picked the songs that’s raw and by myself. Everything we do, more or less, we’re alone now. So I tried to pick the songs that says we are alone.” But, he adds, this back-to-basics album “is not sad. I’m really at home because this is where I started from. At 86 years old you can bet when I started as a kid, we didn’t have all the luxury things we have now.”
As teenager in Arkansas, Rush began his music career after meeting and befriending Elmore James, Willie Dixon, and John Lee Hooker. He soon met other blues legends, as well, including B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. “I looked up to these guys, and got to know them as friends,” Rush says. “They were in their late twenties. That was old to me when I was 17, 18 years old. I played my first gig with Muddy Waters. I don’t know what he liked about me, but he took a liking to me. I always respected Muddy Waters because he respected me.”
Rush’s interest in music actually started about a decade earlier because of his father, who was a preacher. “When I was about seven or eight years old, my cousin gave me a guitar,” Rush says. “I hid it from my daddy. I hid it in this barn, and I would go get it when he wasn’t around. But he knew I was playing it all the time. So one day he said, ‘Bring that guitar here, boy, let me play a song to you I used to play when I was a little older than you.’”
Because his father was a preacher, Rush expected to hear a gospel song. Instead, “He sang, ‘Me and my gal went Chinquapin hunting. She fell down and I saw something.’ I asked my dad, ‘How big was she?’ He said, ‘Boy, she was 350 pounds.’ I said, ‘What she had on, Daddy?’ He said, ‘Nothing but a dress.’ Now in my little mind, 350-pound lady falling down with nothing on but a dress. Wow! That’s raw!” He laughs uproariously. “So I knew right then I was going to be a blues singer and I was going to sing the kind of songs I could put risqué things in like my daddy was singing.”
By the time Rush was 15, he was finding creative ways to play shows. “I painted myself a mustache so I could get in the club, [pretending] I’m 18 years old,” he says. From there, “I went to Chicago early in my life,” where he soon established himself as one of the leading players in the scene. It wasn’t long before he began touring nationally.
“I’m known as ‘The King of the Chitlin Circuit,’ meaning black clubs, little juke joints and what have you,” Rush says of those early days. “That’s all we had. That’s all we knew about. I’m proud to be a King of the Chitlin Circuit. I’m proud to be a blues singer. And doubly proud to be a black blues singer. I’m proud to be who I am.”
Rush is also proud to be a Mississippian – he moved to Jackson, the state’s capital, in the late 1990s. Although he was born in Louisiana and grew up there and in Arkansas, he always felt an affinity for Mississippi, where his family has deep roots. He shows this love for his home state on Rawer Than Raw with his covers of other Mississippi artists.
“I noticed through the years that when I saw people from different states other than Mississippi, like a guy from Louisiana who went to LA, he would change his approach in playing his music. He didn’t play like he did when he was in Louisiana,” Rush says. “But people in Mississippi, wherever they went, they never changed their stories or their music. When a Mississippi man opens his mouth, you can always tell he’s from Mississippi because he never changes. I like that.
“I think it’s because they’re set in their own ways, and probably couldn’t do anything else but that, so that made it good,” Rush continues. “B.B. King told me one time that he couldn’t play and sing at the same time, so then he wound up playing the kind of thing he could play best.”
Rush’s own playing is actually more diverse than that of his predecessors – although he is firmly rooted in the blues tradition, he also incorporates elements of jazz and rap. Throughout the years, this unique style has won him audience members well beyond the Chitlin Circuit, and he has played as far afield as China, Australia, and across Europe. His work has also earned him significant accolades.
“I’ve been up for a Grammy five times,” Rush says. “I won one [for 2016’s Porcupine Meat, which won the Best Traditional Blues Album category]. I was 83 years old when I won my first and only Grammy. But it’s better late than never! I’m so proud and so thankful to be here.” Rush has also been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame.
Happy as he is about these achievements, though, Rush still feels compelled to continue striving to accomplish even more. “I think my energy comes from my inner being. I’m just an active kind of person,” he says. “God has blessed me to have decent health and strength and a healthy mind. I think young. I’m motivated. And every time there’s ups and downs in my life, something has come along that is giving me hope.”
With Rawer Than Raw, Rush is happy to get another chance to share his music with the world. “I’m a black blues man, and I want people to just respect what I do,” he says. “You don’t have to like me, but if I do what I do and do it well, you can say, ‘I don’t like old Bobby Rush, but damn he good!’ That’s all that matters to me.”
Photo by Kim Welsh.