By Mike Greenblatt
When Omnivore Records released last year’s “Chicken Heads” box set chronicling a half-century of Bobby Rush, more attention was focused on the 82-year old funky bluesman from Homer, Louisiana than in the last few decades combined, so much so that it led to a big-time major-label recording contract with Rounder Records. The result is “Porcupine Meat” and, man, it’s too fat to eat and too lean to throw away. But let’s let the man himself tell his tale.
Goldmine: You seem to be on a late-career renaissance after being “The King of the Chitlin’ Circuit.”
Bobby Rush: Yes, I was so happy about that box! I felt blessed that they came to me asking to do this. It was quite an honor.
GM: You do it all, man! Funk, soul, rock, blues, even a little country. What’s your favorite genre?
BR: Blues, man. But I likes to put funk beats behind the groove. I’m always pushing it constantly. Overall, though, I’m a story teller. I gots a different way of telling these tales that usually involve a little something extra to hold their attention. But make no mistake about it: I am a Blues Man.
GM: What would you say to your critics who are more traditionalists?
BR: It ain’t nothin’ but the beat, man. If I use a rock ’n’ roll beat in my blues, who’s to say? Hell, you know that the blues had a baby and named it rock ’n’ roll, don’t you? And then rock ’n’ roll had a baby and named it rock! Yet it all comes off the top of the tree which is blues. And that’s where I come from. I’m just so proud of it all. I can take the best of a blues song, put a different tempo on it, and you’d call it funk, but it’s still the blues. It’s just upbeat, that’s all, like jump blues. I don’t want nobody thinkin’ I’m so smart I can do all these other types of music. I can’t. But I can play it funky. I can do it swing. I can do it jazz. But it’s still all the blues. The story’s the same. And it’s that story that makes me a blues man.
GM: Seems to me you’re so much more, though.
BR: That’s only because I likes different kinds of music. Always have. Especially country. Most people don’t know that about me. (starts singing) “You get the hook, I’ll get the pole, baby, and we’ll go fishin’, ain’t no maybe.” (laughs) I love me some Johnny Cash. I love B.B. King. Ray Charles. And I’m really crazy ‘bout that Fats Domino and Louis Jordan. They’re my heroes. I got all that in me and when you mix it up as a soup, you get Bobby Rush. So I got a lot of different elements within me that I like, different kinds of music, different kinds of stories, but, overall, a good song is a good song. It’s how you sing it that makes it a blues or a jazz song, a pop or a rock song, or a country-western song. It’s all the same to me. If you think about a good story, what better way to tell a story than country? All the rest of it is the stuff you put around it that makes it jazz, rock or country. I love me some country but haven’t found that many songs that move in that direction. If I did, I’d do more of ‘em.
GM: There’s a few on that box!
BR: I used to love me some Clint Black in the 1990s. I was his biggest fan. Young guy. He wore a hat. But I like all that stuff. Going back a lot further, I was always a fan of Hank Snow (1914-1999). But I also always listen and still do to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Lead Belly too.
GM: I love the new Rounder album, “Porcupine Meat.”
BR: Thank you. (laughs) Better late than never! I been doin’ fairly well but it’s not where I want to be. No one took me seriously about my music because I always laugh and joke. But inside of that laughter is wisdom. So’s when I talk about that porcupine meat that’s too fat to eat and too lean to throw away, peoples think that’s funny but when you in love with someone who don’t love you, when you want to leave and can’t leave, or when you do leave and find someone just as bad or worse, then you got the blues. You might as well stay where you are. Because if you don’t stay where you are, that’s the porcupine meat right there! You feelin’ me? Too fat to eat. Too lean to throw away. That’s the way I sum it up, y’know?
GM: Brilliant! How’d you get a big-time recording contract with such a major label as Rounder Records?
BR: Some say I was re-discovered but it wasn’t a new conversation. Let me tell you how it all went down. Rounder Records has been trying to sign me for 40 years but I always seemed to have other business deals at the time that I was more interested in doing. And they’re still interested in me! This is the best thing that could’ve possibly happened to me ‘cause radio don’t play no blues no more! I just knew somebody with a whole lot of ammunition to get things done would come to me to get my stories told and my records distributed. They love me for what I do and respect me for what I do.
We played the Americana Festival in Nashville, Tennessee and they were so accepting of what I do, it just knocked me off my feet. I’m gonna get fans I never had before. And I’m gonna re-energize the fans who might have left to come back to Bobby Rush ‘cause I’m not through yet. Look at Tony Bennett. He’s almost 100, right?
GM: He just turned 90.
BR: John Mayall has talked to me about doing a project together in fact. Buddy Guy, man, he’s right under my toes. If he ain’t older, he’s close. (Buddy Guy is 80.)
GM: I hear you’re still quite the party animal: drinking, drugging, smoking, getting all the girls ...
BR: (laughs) Nah, that’s not true. I mean, I do still likes the ladies but I don’t do any of that other stuff anymore. I’m too old, man. I just do what I do. It’s a fun thing. I’m still gettin’ the most out of life and life just keeps on rollin’ on. You gotsta have some fun ‘cause you only live once and when you’re dead, you’re done.