A flamboyant, outspoken guitarist, harmonica player, vocalist and bandleader, Bobby Rush has been a fixture on the blues scene just as long as his good friends B.B. King and fellow Louisiana native Buddy Guy. But while King and Guy long ago crossed over, to the point where the largest chunk of their current audience numbers on the blues-rock end, Rush has remained popular among the largely black crowds in the dirt-floor clubs and honky-tonk environment that has long comprised the legendary "Chitlin' Circuit."
Still, in recent years, Rush has begun some idiomatic expansion, tinkering with the formula of earthy lyrics, driving funk and fiery blues that's been his musical base since the days he stood on South Side bandstands alongside Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and others.
Rush, who'll be in Nashville this weekend for Saturday appearances at the new Grimey's Too/Frothy Monkey Coffee Shop and Sunday as part of the Nashville Blues Festival at Municipal Auditorium, has a sparkling new LP entitled Down in Louisiana. He describes it as "my attempt at going Americana without burning down the bridges I crossed to get there."
"I've never abandoned my black following," Rush said during a phone interview this week. "I know the things they enjoy in my show, and I like doing those songs. But at the same time, you have to grow and be willing to change, and I think the Americana format works for artists like myself who are doing a lot of different things. So it's a very tough thing for me to do. You've got to walk that line where you don't alienate your longtime fans, but you try to get new ones."
Down in Louisiana stretches the musical envelope considerably, as Rush includes elements of everything from Cajun and reggae to pop and funk. Still, trademark works like the sassy "You're Just Like a Dresser" feature bawdy lines and humorous quips as well as a red-hot lead vocal — tips of the hat delivered straight to his faithful followers.
This change in direction began 18 months ago, when Rush got together with keyboardist Paul Brown at his Nashville-based Ocean Soul Studios. Rush decided to pare down the arrangements and explore some of the music he'd heard growing up in Louisiana.
But no one should worry he's abandoned the flashy rhythms and crackling energy of his past. Tunes like "Tight Money" or "Don't You Cry" contain the emphatic beat and crackling vocals that are emblematic of the Bobby Rush sound. Besides Brown on keyboards, other key contributors include drummer Pete Mendillo, guitarist Lou Rodriguez and bassist Terry Richardson.
Down In Louisiana has even gotten Rush some national attention, though a USA Today review inaccurately claimed Rush has never had a hit. "Chicken Heads" was an R&B Top 40 smash way back in 1971, while "Sue" found its way onto many regional soul playlists.
Rush's formidable 12-piece touring orchestra, plus his array of sexy dancers, has made him enormously popular not only throughout the Deep South, but also at appearances in Las Vegas and several national and international blues festivals.
He's had his Deep Rush Productions label since 2003. The 2011 LP Show You a Good Time earned Rush Best Soul Blues Album of the year honors at the 2012 Blues Music Awards. He's also earned Acoustic Album of the Year and multiple Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year honors. Rush co-starred along King in The Road To Memphis, part of the 2003 PBS Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues series.
"I'm thankful that I've been out here long enough and done well enough that I can speak freely," Rush adds. "I'm not going to get into naming names and attacking people, because that's not what I do. But I will say that I'm someone who's always enjoyed doing his show and taking the blues to the audience who helped create it and nurture it. I've never crossed over to the point where I've forgotten where I came from, and my music will always reflect those roots."
Rush dismisses any notions about slowing down at 77. "I'm still having a great time," he says. "I'm about to start work now on a book and another film project. I don't have any intentions to slow down so long as I can stay healthy and people still want to hear our music."
Bobby Rush appears solo 5 p.m. Saturday at Grimey's Too/Frothy Monkey Coffee Shop, 1604 8th Ave. S. He and his band are also part of the fourth annual Nashville Blues Festival 6 p.m. Sunday at Municipal Auditorium.
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