Bobby Rush: Back to the Raw Roots of The Blues

At 86, the blues great pays homage to the Mississippi masters who guide his path

Bobby Rush 2020 (Art: Ron Hart)

Bobby Rush has been playing the blues since he picked up the guitar when he was 11.

Although he toured for most of his career with an electric backing band, he never strayed to far into R&B or funk. “I grew up singing the blues and that’s all I know,” he said from his Mississippi home. “I’m a blues singer and I love the blues. I may put a funky rhythm to it like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf did, but the root of my music is the blues. It always will be.”

Rush shows off his roots on his new album, Rawer Than Raw. It’s an 11 song acoustic set that combines self-penned hits from various periods of his career, with songs that pay tribute to the Mississippi bluesmen that inspired him. It was recorded the old fashioned way, just Rush singing with his acoustic guitar, his stomping foot keeping the rhythm. The title is a tribute to Raw, the acoustic album Rush made 13 years ago. 

“I already had the stuff in my head that I wanted to do,” Rush said. “Some had already been recorded and then the pandemic hit. Since I couldn’t go out and record any new stuff, I used what I had. My engineer, Randy Everett, and me had a little work we had to do, but most of the album was already done. The guitar was acoustic, but you can put a pick up in it, so it sounds amplified, almost like an electric guitar. B. B. King told me he always recorded and sang at the same time, so that’s what I do. It was all done in one take and what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. I did a few harmonica overdubs, ‘cause I can’t sing and play harmonica at the same time.  

Bobby Rush Rawer Than Raw, Deep Rush 2020

“The hardest part was picking the songs. I wanted to pay respect to all the Mississippi guys I admire, but there were so many – Howin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Skip James and a lot of others, but I couldn’t put ‘em all onto one CD. So I picked songs by guys whose stuff I liked, that I could come up with my versions of. I sat down with my guitar and my big feet and made the album the way I always do. My guitar goes in two different directions. My thumb plays the bass line, the rest of my fingers play the melody and my feet are my drums. I did some of ‘em at my home studio and some at Randy’s home studio.”

Despite the bare bones approach, Rawer Than Raw has an expansive sound. Skip James’ “Hard Times” is slow and somber, with Rush moaning the lyric in a desolate tone. He slips up into his high register for “Smokestack Lightnin’,” his acoustic adding a subtle electric twang to the performance. “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” gets an energetic treatment that mimics the sound of a full rock’n’roll band, with Rush’s twanging acoustic and foot stomps driving the rhythm. 

Rush said he wants to get back on the road as soon as possible. He’s planning to tour as a solo act, performing his one-man show Bobby Rush: An Intimate Evening of Stories and Songs.

 

VIDEO: Bobby Rush Live From Jackson, MS July 2020

“I have a lot of interesting stories. I was one of the few Black guys that crossed over and never crossed out. I was on The Chitlin Circuit [a network of clubs that were open to Black performers in the days of segregation.] I want to talk about what I did back then for all the people to hear. I was known as The King of The Chitlin Circuit, but if that’s all you know about me, you don’t know Bobby Rush. For me, it was never a Black thing, or white thing. It was always about the music. I always had white fans. A lot of guys in my position had white fans and Black people didn’t know who they were. I’m one of the few guys that’s known by Black people and white people, but it all gets down to the blues. The blues have a message of hope, and hope always comes back. When Martin Luther King was killed I lost hope, but people kept marching and that brought back hope. Black Lives Matter brings me hope. I see white and Black and Brown marching together, and I think, ‘This is something hopeful.’ You can live a long time without food, or bread, or water, but you can’t live without hope. You have to have hope. It’s at the root of all my music.”

 

j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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