Bobby Rush steps deep into the blues with “Rawer Than Raw”

Trying to write about the life and music of Bobby Rush is a little bit like trying to explain the blues itself.

It’s a long and complicated story, and it’s not over yet.

In fact, at the age of 86, the Bobby Rush story seems like it’s just getting started.

He worked his music for decades, including on the legendary Chitlin Circuit, and his stage and club shows, which I’ve seen a few times, have been wildly successful, even as broader recognition eluded him. But that’s no longer the case.

I don’t know exactly when a shift in Rush’s career perceptions began. Maybe it was when he won a Grammy in 2017 for his album “Porcupine Meat.” Maybe it was the abundance of other blues nominations and awards that he began to accumulate at about that time. Or maybe it was just his turn.

Whatever, it’s not because Bobby Rush has changed much, or changed what he does. He’s always been Bobby Rush. And his wider exposure is only a good thing for him, and for the blues, and for us.

This all a very long and rambling way to introduce some words about his very latest and very fine album, “Rawer Than Raw” (Deep Rush Records). It’s elemental, essential blues, stripped of everything but guitar, harp and some very raw vocals. It’s also a sequel of sorts to his first acoustic album, the 2007 “Raw.”

He’s written some of the songs, and taken a handful from some other great old bluesmen and given them all the Bobby Rush treatment. Which means they tough and good, old-fashioned down-home blues. And quite raw.

The thing is, all the songs sound like they’re cut from the same old blues cloth — Rush is channeling the greats and then creating his own work to fit right alongside theirs.

He kicks it all off with his own “Down In Mississippi,” credited under his given name, Emmett Ellis Jr., which he changed out of respect for his pastor father.  It’s one of four originals, fiercely rough,that scrape you raw with their power and passion. And don’t forget, this is all just a man and his guitar (Okay, plus his harp and foot-tapping.).

He turns Skip James’ “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” into “Hard Times,” tackles Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom,” and adds on some Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy II and Muddy Waters’ version of “Honey Bee, Sail On” for good measure.

“Rawer Than Raw” is a throwback to an earlier time, and if you like your blues pure and powerful, this is a good place to start. Or to continue your journey. This kind of music doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. Mr. Rush has traveled a long and winding blues highway to be able to sound this good.

Here’s a video of Rush performing “Dust My Broom” from “Rawer Than Raw.”

Tracklist & credits

Down In Mississippi – Bobby Rush
Hard Times – Skip James
Let Me In Your House – Bobby Rush
Smokestack Lightning – Chester Burnett
Shake It For Me — Willie Dixon
Sometimes I Wonder – Bobby Rush
Don’t Start Me Talkin’ — Sonny Boy Williamson II (Alex Miller)
Let’s Make Love Again – Bobby Rush
Honey Bee, Sail On – Traditional (Public Domain)
Garbage Man – Bobby Rush
Dust My Broom – Robert Johnson

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