Bluesman Bobby Rush is living high off the hog, or at least that’s how the down home, Louisiana native might describe it. “We talk about chickens, donkeys, monkeys and alligators—anything that moves on the ground,” Rush once laughingly proclaimed.
At age 83, the guitarist, vocalist, harmonica player and composer, whose first gold record was 1971’s “Chicken Heads,” is celebrating having been honored with his first Grammy for his deeply soulful, often funky and funny and always straight-up honest 2016 Rounder Records release Porcupine Meat.
“Call me homeboy!” Rush has repeatedly requested from his fellow Louisianans and why he’s so excited to perform in New Orleans for the first time since winning the Grammy. “I’m bringing it back home!” he proudly declares. The Bobby Rush Band, an octet complete with his amazing, well-endowed dancing “girls,” headlines on Sunday, October 15 at the 12th annual Blues and BBQ Festival.
Born in Homer, Louisiana, Rush moved to Arkansas in 1947 and several years later headed to Chicago where he spent some 30 years developing and honing his musical craft. He got a bit closer to his home state when he set up shop in Jackson, Mississippi in 1980. Though Rush, who has been the recipient of numerous awards through the decades, hasn’t lived in Louisiana since childhood, he delights in his roots here. In 2014 his album Down in Louisiana received a Grammy nomination, and his Grammy winning Porcupine Meat boasts an all-star New Orleans band with keyboardist David Torkanowsky, bassist Cornell Williams, drummer Jeffery “Jellybean” Alexander, sousaphonist Kirk Joseph, saxophonists Roger Lewis and Khari Allen Lee and background vocalist Charles “Chucky C” Elam III. Only guitarist and longtime Rush music mate, Mississippian Vasti Jackson, who acted as the CD’s music director, hails from outside of Louisiana.
The always enthusiastic and energized Bobby Rush returns “home” with trophy in hand and a smile on his face. It may have been a long time comin’ but that’s no matter to him. He’s ready for more.
Has your life and/or career changed since you won the Grammy for Porcupine Meat?
I would think so. People now call me that didn’t know me before. I guess people respect me from a different perspective now because of the Grammy. It brings about more work. I’m picking up another audience—another class of people. I’ve been known as the “King of the Chitlin’ Circuit” so I’ve advanced out of that now to a B.B. King audience or an Elton John audience. I haven’t changed anything. I’m playing at festivals I haven’t worked in a long time and some of them I haven’t ever worked at all. I think it put me in another category, which is all good. I don’t think I bring more to the table having a Grammy but people know more about me from the Grammy. I have something to live up to, that’s for sure.
How about your earning power? Can you demand more money for your performances?
I want to let people know that I want to get my price up but I don’t want to price out performing for people who have been with me all their lives and all my life. I just want to make money with what I’m doing but I also want to keep my fans and I want to gain new fans to help launch my career to a better place than it was.
Do you think Porcupine Meat being released on the Rounder label was helpful?
Oh, God, yes. The label helped me but all of the people at the label who had so much faith in me, my producer Scott Billington and his lovely wife [Johnette Downing, who along with Rush and Scott composed “Snake in the Grass”] who’s written some good songs, really wrapped their arms around me. I was just hurt because record sales are so down league now that you don’t sell records like you used to because of downloading and that hurt the record company. I’m sad about that but I’m happy about what they did for me. They really put me on the map and put me in places I’d never been before. I just feel so bad that I can’t sell a lot of records for the company because it’s such a good label with such good people and they worked so hard. They did so many good things and they did so many right things. I’m just in tears it didn’t do the numbers that I thought it should have done.
Have you ever played live with the New Orleans musicians who are on Porcupine Meat?
No, I haven’t—other than Vasti Johnson. I would love to—we talked about that one time. I would just melt in my shoes if that ever happened. Those guys [from the album] could make a fly dance on the wall.
We do so much more than just do the album. I have 374 records—some of them have been hit records, some of them were gold records. You’ve also got to know this ain’t the only record that I have. You know what, I’m so excited that out of 374 records [released] this is the first I ever cut in my home state and won a Grammy on it and everybody except Vasti [and several guest artists] is from Louisiana.
You’ve played in New Orleans at Jazz Fest for a number of years, at Voodoo Fest, twice at OffBeat’s Best of the Beat awards and also at the Blues and BBQ Fest several times. Is there anything you particularly like about the Blues Fest?
I like the rudeness of it—the grit of the festival. Scott [producer Scott Aiges] reaches back and gives people shots who don’t have a shot. He’s always trying to motivate people and get people to know musicians who are unknown. Just because you’re unknown, don’t mean you’re not a good musician. He always puts on the dog. So now, I’m an upper dog so I’m trying to make sure that I help all of the people who came my way get the shot that I got. I came up through the ranks baby. I’m so proud that I was able to work and came up through those ranks and here we are now working as headliners around the country.
You left Louisiana when you were young, though a lot of your sound—well it’s a combination—still has the Louisiana flavor in there. That’s particularly true on the tune “Catfish Stew.”
So I love Muddy Waters, love Johnnie Taylor, I liked Ray Charles, T-Bone Walker, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jimmy Reed, Fats Domino, Louis Jordan… You can hear a little bit of this and a little of that in my songwriting and in my voice. You put it all in a big bowl and you stir it up and you got a Bobby Rush. Although I’m playing the blues, you can hear a little bit of that zydeco thing back in my voice [on ‘Catfish’].
Oh, Louis Jordan was probably my biggest influence. He talked about things I could relate to: chickens, dogs, cows, fish fries and the whole bit. He was particularly my number one when I was coming up.
The writing on Porcupine Meat as well as other tunes you’ve composed through the decades is just great. The lyrics of “I Don’t Want Nobody Hanging Around,” are just hilarious. Do you write all of the time?
My best writing comes—all of my writing comes—when I don’t have a pencil. It’s when I’m driving. In the past, a lot of times something would come to me when my tape recorder was in the trunk and I have to pull over. Sometimes it’s there then sometimes it’s not. I’m writing now because I’m getting ready to do this other CD. In probably another 90 days I’ll have it in the direction I’m going with.
Have you ever eaten porcupine meat?
Not that I know of. [Laughs] Here’s what I was talkin’ about when I was writing this song. I was talking about I’m in love with this woman that I know she don’t mean me no good but I love what she do to me. I know all the time she probably has someone else. I don’t want to leave her because then I won’t have any parts of her at all. That’s porcupine meat—“too fat to eat and too lean to throw away.” I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t. You want it, you know it ain’t no good for you but it sure is good to you.
Your energy level onstage as a musician, singer and totally entertaining performer is just outrageous. That holds true offstage as well. What’s your secret?
I don’t know. I didn’t notice I had energy until people told me about it. It was just part of life for me, I’m just that kind of person. It’s part of my makeup to be active—I’m a workaholic. I feel pretty good, I don’t feel as good all the time as I used to feel but even if I don’t I just try to go on anyway. That’s my attitude in life. I think about what it could have been so that I’d be just so thankful for what it is. I just try to mold myself in a way so I can sustain the day. I don’t eat much red meat—if they fly or swim, I eat ’em.
Do you still have your record label, Deep Rush? Will the next album you mentioned be on that or Rounder?
I hope we can work something out—let it unfold. I want to give Rounder every shot I can give them because they were so wonderful for me. I’ve put out 12 recordings on Deep Rush—everything is available except maybe one that is hard to get. I have control of most of the things I’ve done throughout my history.
In a 2014 interview with OffBeat you said, “I perform my blackness,” when talking about the notoriously wonderful “girls” who dance as part of your show. Can you elaborate?
I’m a black man who is proud of what I do; proud of who I am. I always talk about being a blues singer; I’m not just a blues singer, I’m a black blues singer. I don’t hide that. People embrace me for who I am, for what I do. I appreciate that. One thing for sure, when you see me doing what I’m doing, you know that I’m a black man doing what I’m doing. There’s no if, and or but about who I am.
I said that because so many times we’d have black guys who say I’m going to do this because I think this is what white people like or I’m going to do this because I think this is what black people like. I do what I feel that I hope everyone likes. It’s not a black or white issue with me. It’s about the love of the music.
Dance is part of the heritage of what black people do. When I first came out with the girls everybody thought… well, I don’t know what they thought but I could hear the mumbling in the back. Nevertheless, people accept it now better than they did then. Even if they don’t, I have to do what I have to do and I do it out of love. I was doing it in the black neighborhoods all the time and there were no problems there because they understood. But when I started crossing over to the white audience then I had a little flack even from the black people because I guess they were ashamed of what I was doing because I was a black man doin’ this. The girls have changed up through the years but the show won’t change. It’s the Bobby Rush Band, the Bobby Rush entourage.
A lot of time my race seems ashamed of the blues. I tell everyone that the blues is the root of all music, the mother of all music.