It has been said that the only constant in life is change and 2020 has only further proven the old saying true. Between the upheavals brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the growing support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the re-examining of racial tensions and police reform across the United States, this year has been like no other.
Blues legend Bobby Rush has experienced firsthand the waves of change; the 86-year-old musician overcame COVID-19 earlier this year and has lived his entire life wrestling with racial inequality. Rush’s new album Rawer Than Raw is due out August 28 on Deep Rush/Thirty Tigers and in it the artist goes back to the basics of blues.
Rush was born Emmett Ellis Jr. in Louisiana, the great-grandchild of slaves from Mississippi, and later changed his name to Bobby Rush out of respect for his father who was a preacher. Rush’s family relocated to Arkansas and later Chicago.
In the home of the blues he lived and worked for many years surrounded by a Who’s Who of blues legends, including harmonica player extraordinaire Little Walter who Rush met through Houston’s own Duke-Peacock Records. "Oh God, I hung around with the best," says Rush.
Rush’s mother warned him against returning to Mississippi due to her family’s experience there but in the early 2000s he decided to return to Jackson to learn more about the complicated history of his relatives there. “That's right I moved to Mississippi to look for my roots and fell in love with it. I’m the first great-grandson of the slaves to move back to Mississippi,” says Rush proudly.
In his long career he has never slowed down and has always been true to himself. Rush is known and loved for his magnetic stage presence, harmonica skills and incredible sense of humor. His many years on the Chitlin’ Circuit provided him with large, mostly black audiences and unlike some of his blues contemporaries, like his good friend Buddy Guy, it proved harder for Rush to cross over into white audiences.
Despite this fact, Rush has recorded countless albums and singles, won a Grammy in 2017 for his album Porcupine Meat and is a twelve time Blues Music Award winner. In 2007, Rush released Raw, a stripped down blues album which led him to performing solo shows throughout the year engaging audiences in his down home blues.
In Rawer Than Raw, his twenty seventh studio album, Rush again returns to where it all began for him but this time paying tribute to old friends and blues legends from Mississippi. Rush is quick to clarify that he admires musicians from all over the map but decided to focus on his home of Mississippi for this album.
The sounds may take listeners back in time to sweaty juke joints but it never feels outdated, proving that a good blues song is timeless and the blues continue to be relevant 150 years after the first slaves from Africa brought the musical style into southern cotton fields.
Rawer Than Raw is a bare bones version of classic blues with only Rush’s voice, guitar, harmonica and foot stomping on the floor. No snazzy suits, no back up singers and no band, Rush can tell a story and draw people in on his own, whether singing his own songs or those of his friends.
“What it is is where I come from as a young boy playing by myself outside on the porch. That's where I started from with my guitar and my foot, my big foot that is. I got to make sure I get that in,” he laughs.
“I'm going back to the roots of where I come from and that's what life is about, we all have to go back to the roots. I'm enthused about this album because it give me time to think about the roots where I come from.”
“I wanted to salute the people that I respected so highly when I was young and coming up as with the Howling Wolf, the Muddy Waters, these are people that I looked up to. I looked forward to hearing and growing things with them and around them you know,” says Rush.
Rush admits that it was taxing yet fulfilling to reflect on his old friends who have all passed away and their influences on his life and music. Rawer Than Raw has five original songs written by Rush and six covers paying tribute to Skip James, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Muddy Waters and of course, Howlin’ Wolf.
Rush honored Wolf with two tracks including the steamy and sexy version of “Shake It For Me”, released as the first single for this album. Even at 86 years old Rush has still got the same energy and charisma as that young boy who would draw on his mustaches with burnt matchsticks to play the nightclubs.
“When you listen to that record, that's as close as I could get to my childhood days. I could do something for these guys. I can't go to these guys and talk to them, so all I can do is do their songs.”
Keeping the memory of his friends alive is keeping the blues alive and Rush breaks down how the blues are still relevant today. “We talk about rock and roll had a baby called acid music, and the blues had a baby called rock and roll. Now R&B, which is still considered blues it’s just the rhythm of it, it had a baby called rap and they talking about the same thing, just a different beat of it. You can only write about what you know about so rappers ain’t writing about nothing that hasn’t been wrote before and its all blues, it really is.”
Rush's original tracks fall right into place on the album include the hip shaking "Down In Mississippi" where the artist shows off one of his strongest talents, his ability to burn it up on the harmonica.
Rush describes how Rawer Than Raw and current events have inspired him in many ways and the joy he feels in being able to continue to sing these songs, especially after his recent hospitalization due to COVID-19.
“At my age, when they put me into a room they put me into a room as a black man, as an old black man that is. They really had gave up on me. They just put me in a room they didn't even come back to see about me for two or three hours but God had my back and I pulled through it. I don't want to take credit that I did all this, God just embraced me with his love and brought me through.”
Rush is also paying close attention to racial tensions in the United States and as a man who was forced to perform behind curtains in the past due to the color of his skin, he’s hopeful that this sea change will last.
“I’m enthused about it because when Martin Luther King got killed in Memphis, Tennessee it took the wind out of me and I lost a lot of hope, but now since [George] Floyd got killed it gave me some more hope because now you've got Black and White talking about Black Lives Matter. I’m just hoping this will bring about a change in life and bring about a love between people as a whole.”
When discussing those who argue that slavery was long ago and that people need to let go of their past Rush says, “No it was not that long ago at all when you think about time, places and things. It’s a long time to hold your breath if you're underwater, but it’s not long when you're talking about life and things you need to change and do.”
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“Now I don't know where this is going, how long it's going to last or where it’s going from here but I can tell you one thing, now in Mississippi where I live, the flag has been taken down and not that it's going to solve all the problems, but it's a start of solving the problems. Taking the flag down is one thing, but straightening your heart out another thing you know.”
With no live music going on since March this is the longest time Rush has spent at home in the past 65 years but he’s enjoyed getting to know his great grandchildren more and continuing to focus on his music as well.
“My little great-granddaughter she say, ‘Grandaddy, how does it feel to get old?’ and I tell her, 'Well I can't explain it to you, just get old and you'll understand it,'” he laughs.
Though he’s enjoying his time at home Rush is openly grateful for his health and career. He is looking forward to getting back on the road as soon as he can, “I’m good to go now,” he says about his recovery. “I was walking outside looking for a moon cause I feel like I could jump over the moon now,” he laughs adding “I didn’t see a moon so I got nothing to do.”