Bobby Rush Interview: Still Rawer than Raw

If you ever want to feel special, let bluesman Bobby Rush sing some old-school country and western to you:

You get the hook and I’ll get the pole base
You get the hook and I’ll get the pole
We go down to cry at home
Honey baby, mine.

You can’t deny the bluesiness of his voice, but singing now, over the phone, after discussing his country music influences, he’s able to throw in a twang that, if for a moment, will make you wonder if Rush could have made it onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. While Rush is known for his high-energy shows, often featuring dancers, and for his soulful, funk-influenced blues, the emotional center of a song is what drives him. “I love a lot of country and western,” he says. “I just love stories, man.”

Growing up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, the only place to hear musical stories was the local record store. “We had this random record shop and all we could hear blues-wise was Jimmy Reed and then Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightning Hopkins,” he recalls. “That’s all we had heard. That’s all we knew. And other than that, we didn’t have anything but some country and western.” The blues stuck to Rush, bringing him to Chicago, where he would eventually become friends with and colleagues of many of the artists he heard in that record store. And now he’s paying tribute to some of those same artists on Rawer Than Raw, Rush’s acoustic tribute to the great blues artists of Mississippi.

The intimate format doesn’t scream Rush’s brand, but it’s actually his second acoustic album, the first one being 2007’s Raw. He’s also done acoustic sets within his high-octane shows for the past half decade. Or, to be more precise he does the acoustic set for many of his concerts. “I don’t do a lot them in the chitlin’ circuit area because people expect me to do the show with the girls and the whole bit,” he says. “And I don’t want to get away from that.”

And that’s the thing about Rush. He’s an entertainer, but there’s depth. His stage show can feel like Las Vegas had a baby with a juke joint, but he’s not pandering to anyone. Rawer than Raw came about because Rush saw an opportunity in the physical limitations of the pandemic. He’s not crassly using the opportunity to try and move records for Deep Rush, his own imprint—although, I’d listen to a Rush album about antibodies—but instead to gratefully honor the songs and people that inspired him (with a similar album for Louisiana artists already on Rush’s mind). “I’m not trying to cross over and cross out,” he says. “I’m just trying to expand myself to another level for people to see Bobby Rush as a musician, as an entertainer, as a songwriter, and a storyteller.”

And luckily for us, he’s always trying to reach that next level within the blues. Rawer than Raw is all Rush. His voice. His guitar. His harmonica. All in one take. Rush probably could have been a great a country artist, had he been so inclined, but Rawer than Raw reminds us that his blues work is truly special.

You made Raw in 2007. That was your first acoustic album?

Raw was my first acoustic album, but this kind of album we call Raw is nothing new to me and John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Because we all came from that mold. They were a little bit older than I. But when you start from when I started in 1951, I came from the old wood shed. When I got to Chicago, I started to put the band together and we kind of electrified our direction, where we were going, and we put a band with it, and we started to sound a bit different. But really Raw is where I come from. That’s what I was doing from the beginning.

When I first did Raw, I kind of wanted a try-out situation, and people accepted it. So when COVID hit so bad, and we were getting holed up, I thought, ‘Let me go back into my catalog and pull some things back that I used to do and do some things from where I come from as a young boy.’ With one-string, one band, no band, and just me and my big feet and playing.

And so I pulled out a lot of things. I do have a lot of things in the can like that. So I started to think about it and my manager Jeff said ‘Why don’t we put something out like this?” He said ‘What are we going to call it?’ Well, we had an album called Raw, but this is Rawer than Raw. People probably think it’s something new to Bobby Rush, but it’s nothing new to me. Or Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, or Muddy Waters, because we all started with a one-man band thing. That’s all there was back in the day.

So the idea for the album came during COVID-19?

Yeah. I said if I do it by myself then I didn’t have to call anybody in, because we have to get out and be distant from each other. What better time is it to be distant from my own self? I could just go lock myself up in a room and turn the tape on and record. And I don’t have to call the band in. Get me a piece of board, put it on the floor, put a microphone on the board, and stomp my feet. And that’s what we kind of did

And the other thing that excited me was that I wanted to salute the people from Mississippi that I respect so highly. And the hardest thing for me is picking everyone that I like, because a lot of the people I like are not from Mississippi. But I thought to pick Mississippi because Mississippi to me seemed to have something different than other parts of the country. Because when you’re talking about Chicago blues, we’re really talking about Mississippi guys; 90% of those guys are from Mississippi. But every time you hear somebody play the blues, a lot of the time, you can’t tell where they’re from unless they’re from Mississippi. You can always tell the Mississippi sound. So I wanted to take my hat off to Mississippi people.

But you were born in Louisiana?

Born in Louisiana, I left Louisiana in 1947, and went to Pine Bluff, Arkansas with my father, who was a preacher and a pastor of a church. In the early 50s, I moved to Chicago. I met Willie Dixon in Mississippi. And Elmore James, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. I met them in the south, in Clarksdale, Missisippi. They went to Chicago and invited me to come up. Little Walter told me that I needed to be in Chicago in the early 50s. So I went there to be with the big boys [laughs]. So Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf, we’re talking about they were eight or 10 years older than I, which wasn’t that much older. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf may have been 15 years older than I. And I don’t know what Muddy Waters liked about me, but he always thought I was some great superstar or someone. What he saw in a young boy like me, I don’t know. I just appreciate his friendship; what I learned from him and what he taught me and what I learned by just observing the things that he did and he did not do.

Is it hard to cover these songs because you knew the people who recorded them?

It’s hard to cover because I could never be good enough. I did an Elmore James song, “Dust My Broom.” I did it several different ways and times back in the past. I used to do it on the stage because Elmore James was a guy that I fell in love with and in fact he played in my band back in the early 50s, quite a bit of shows. Muddy Waters never played with me, but I played in the same rooms, clubs, and juke joints that he played in. Howlin’ Wolf was a guy who I did some studio work with, and played a lot of clubs. Because they were superstars and I was the beginner, and I’m looking up to these guys and I want to do something for them.

I loved your your “Dust My Broom” cover. I thought it was very interesting to not use the slide.

Because I love the slide but if I do the slide, I’m imitating Elmore James. But if I do it my way, I’m respecting Elmore James. I’m saluting him and his songs. It doesn’t have anything to do with the slide.

Did you try versions with and without the slide?

It’s quite natural when you’re doing Elmore James and “Dust My Broom”, you think about that, [sings the slide riff]. But I tried to stay away from that. It would be noticed enough to understand that I’m doing “Dust My Broom.” So I think people can get that. And I did enough of it to ensure that people understand that I’m getting into it, that they understand where the song is coming from, they understand it’s an Elmore James song. Now, I already knew that many people did it, the first person who did it was probably Robert Johnson, maybe. But that wasn’t a version that knocked me out. Elmore James’ version of it just knocks me out.

And when you when you were tracking this album, were you doing vocals and guitar and everything at the same time?

At the same time. No overdubs period. In my playing the guitar, it sounds like two guys playing it. That’s the way I play. And when you hear me live, I sound the same way.

I was wondering because singing and playing at the same time is hard!

It’s hard. I put a harp rack around my neck. And I took my guitar and I went and played it. I think there is one part that I went back on my harp, where I didn’t like my harp playing because I was playing and singing at the same time. I went back and did a couple lines with the harmonica because you could tell that I stopped playing the harp and started singing. So I went back and put a line in to make the harp overlap my singing. That’s the only overdub. Nothing else.

It sounds very rich. It doesn’t sound like just one person.

Well it’s just one me and and it’ll be pretty exciting for me to go around do some tours like this, because when people see me do it live, they’ll realize that I’m doing this alone.

I read an interview where you talked about your audience and how you have a broad appeal. You see different types of people at your shows. You said that your audience is black and white, where other blues guys might not have those black fans.

I’m a blessed man, to have this kind of audience. The rapper can relate to it because I’m a rapper. I’m a blues man. I’m a gospel singer. I’m a country western singer. All in one, because I still tell the same story that the concert world entails, but I also play the same blues licks that the blues players play. But yet I talk the talk in a rapping kind of way that the rappers and young black guys can understand where I’m coming from. Because they listen to me, too. Because when I talk about [raps]:

In a little shack down by the bay
Not often rolling
I met this woman down there
The prettiest woman I ever seen
She went and told her daddy that she wants to marry me
And the look on daddy’s face really was a sight to see
He said get out of here with you
And don’t you come back no more.

When I said things like that, people know that the rappers gonna be into where I am. And to where I’m going. Now a lot of the blues guys, especially at my age, don’t speak that fast as swiftly, where young people can get into the lyrics. You know? But I don’t do it intentionally just to grab them. I do it because those are my stories. This is what I talk about.

Look how when I wrote a song about chicken heads, I wrote this song with me and my guitar, I just put the band around me as I got into the studio. It wasn’t written for the band. It was written for me to talk about me and my story about this woman I’m in love with, and I know she don’t love me. I want to leave but I can’t because I’m afraid if I leave her that someone else will get what I’m getting. See, but then I put it in the band way. But it started off talking about this woman I love and she just doesn’t treat me right. Every time I leave, I catch myself coming right back. That’s happened to a lot of folks, you know. This way, what I’m doing with the acoustic thing, I’m just nitty gritty talking about the blues, and I’ve wrapped it around saluting the blues men of Mississippi. That’s the easy way of me doing what I really want to do. That’s really me.

Steven Ovadia

Steven Ovadia interviews blues artists about their songwriting process for Working Mojo.

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