Yes, he’s a bluesman. But you might not pick up on that right away when speaking to Bobby Rush.
Take for instance, his response to that most common and obligatory of greetings – “How are you?”
“Man, I’m on fire. I can’t help it. I’m a blessed man. I’m just on fire.”
That little blast of jubilation is indicative of a blues and R&B stylist that, at age 77, feels like he is the luckiest singing soul out of Homer, Louisiana. In his lifetime, Rush – born Emmitt Ellis, Jr. – befriended blues icon Elmore James after his pastor father moved to Arkansas. Then came lessons from the great electric bluesmen of Chicago when his family relocated again. Finally, after an R&B single called Chicken Heads became a radio hit in 1970, Rush set up base in Mississippi and established revue-style bands that steered closer to the groove conscious soul of James Brown than to the amped up blues of Muddy Waters.
And to everyone’s good fortune, Rush has been grooving ever since.
“There is really not that much difference between Chicago and Mississippi,” said the Grammy nominated singer and bandleader who performs tonight for the first taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at its new home in the Lyric Theatre.
“Chicago has those hot streets. Mississippi has those hot cotton fields. But the people are all the same. They are all in love and out of love. I just love bringing these songs and stories to people.”
While he has been a touring mainstay of the blues and R&B circuit for decades and has played everywhere from the shiniest of Las Vegas nightspots to the most remote and rural of Southern juke joints, Rush found a powerful but unlikely ally in Hollywood that would introduce him to an entirely new audience: Martin Scorsese.
The famed film director produced a seven-part series for PBS that aired in 2003 titled simply The Blues. In the fourth segment, The Road to Memphis, director Richard Pearce offered a detailed slice-of-life portrait of a working bluesman. In this case, the bluesman was Rush.
“That was the biggest thing that ever happened to me in my life. I thought it was kind of a fluke. There wasn’t really any money in doing it. But I agreed as long as the guys filming spent the day with me. I wanted them to come out to my home and come on the bus with me. I want them to come with me to church. I guess I just wanted people to see what I was really about, that the same people I play for in the juke joints on Saturday nights were the same folks I saw at church on Sunday morning.”
Rush recently issued a new album, Down in Louisiana, that offers more of the old school blues (Don’t You Cry) and earthy country funk (Rock This House) that has defined his music throughout the years. Tunes like Tight Money, though, add in a touch of swampy, neo-Cajun spice.
“You put it all together and you get kind of a Bobby Rush stew. It’s Bobby Rush up and down.
“I didn’t want some big production with this record. I was looking for a deep woods kind of sound instead. A lot of my records have crossed over, which helps me bring in younger audiences. But as you do that you can’t forget the people, especially the R&B crowds, that have always been with you. You can crossover but you can never cross out.”
While the album title suggests a sense of homecoming to the singer’s Louisiana roots, an even deeper flashback was provided once recording sessions got underway in Nashville. That’s because Rush tuned into the city’s longstanding radio giant, WLAC, as a child. The station offered equal helpings of blues and country tradition.
“I came up with WLAC as a kid. It educated me in all these great R&B and blues musicians. That’s where I first heard Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and Junior Parker. But that’s also where I heard Roy Acuff and Willie Nelson. There really wasn’t much difference between any of them. They were all singing about the same things.”
Bobby Rush and Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper perform at 7 p.m. Jan. 21 at the Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Tickets are $10.
Call (859) 252-8888.