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After six decades, blues legend Bobby Rush isn't slowing down

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

By the time Bobby Rush was 9 years old, he was already working in the cotton fields.

BOBBY RUSH: I wasn't big enough to chop cotton like my older brothers, so I was the water boy. Go getting the water. Sometimes you walk a half a mile to get water and come back. By the time you get that bucket of water to the workers in the field, it's time to go get another bucket of water.

KELLY: It was the 1940s, rural Louisiana, halfway between Homer and Haynesville.

RUSH: There's nothing out there but a barn and a couple mules and a couple cows, you know?

KELLY: But there was also music.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHTNIN' HOPKINS SONG, "EVERYTHING GONNA BE ALRIGHT")

RUSH: My dad had been a preacher, and he had a old radio. At night when he goes to sleep, I would listening to John R., WLAC Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING GONNA BE ALRIGHT")

LIGHTNIN' HOPKINS: (Singing) Oh, baby.

RUSH: And, man, Lightnin' Hopkins or Muddy Waters, somebody come on. (Singing) Oh, yeah. Everything, everything, everything gonna be all right.

So wow. That's what I want to do.

KELLY: Really? You knew when you were that little that's...

RUSH: Yeah.

KELLY: I don't just want to hear it. I want to do it.

RUSH: Yeah. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING GONNA BE ALRIGHT")

HOPKINS: (Singing) Gonna be all right.

KELLY: Young Bobby Rush made good on that promise. He grew up to be a prolific blues musician, traveling in the same circles as B.B. King and Buddy Guy and Elmore James. And he never really slowed down. At 89 years old, he is out now with a new album called "All My Love For You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M FREE")

RUSH: (Singing) We come a long way, but I got a long way to go. Things I used to do down in Louisiana, I don't do no more.

KELLY: When we sat down to chat, I started by asking about his childhood growing up in the Jim Crow South with a Black father and a mother who passed as white.

RUSH: I just remember going to school or going out someplace, she would tell people that she was babysitting me. She had to deny me as a mom. And my daddy was - when he was around, he was her chauffeur and her husband and my father when we got home. And if I look back on it now when she was white, when she wanted to be or had to be. She was a Black woman when she wanted to be or had to be. But I didn't know until I got older how devastating that was.

KELLY: That's a lot for a child to carry.

RUSH: Yeah. Yeah. But I didn't know that early. I didn't know that until I got 12 years old before I knew about the black and white issue. I didn't know about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEDAY")

RUSH: (Singing) When I woke up, the sky opened up and poured down with rain.

KELLY: You grew up. You left home. You eventually left home and settled in Chicago. You started touring clubs, clubs that - like, this would later be known as the chitlin circuit.

RUSH: Yeah.

KELLY: Is that right? Explain.

RUSH: Yeah. Yes. It's nothing but a juke joint. It's chitlin circuit. I would see - Black people didn't write about the chiltin circuit. Well, white people who wrote about the chitlin circuit. But if chitlin circuit was a thing that Black men like myself and Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, all these guys, we was paid chitlins.

KELLY: Chitlins, I should explain, for people who haven't had the pleasure are...

RUSH: Hog intestine.

KELLY: ...Fried hog intestines.

RUSH: Yes.

KELLY: And they taste a lot better than that sounds.

RUSH: Yeah (laughter). It don't sound bad to me because I'm a country boy. I come out of that. But when you said chitlins, you're saying like steak, you know? I remember I was so good in 1949 and '50, the man would make me three hot dogs, two bowl of chitlins; and he would make me a hamburger, that I would eat one and sell the rest of them. He wasn't paying but $3 a night, so I was selling enough to make me another $3. That's $6.

KELLY: Yeah.

RUSH: Man. Man, that's a lot of money. I had $6 for me and three guys. We get $2 a piece, man. We were - oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOTTA HAVE MONEY")

RUSH: (Singing) Got to have money, baby. Got to get money, y'all.

KELLY: You said white people used that term, and Black people didn't. Do you resent the term now, chitlin circuit?

RUSH: No, I don't resent the term. Maybe some people do. But I hate that it's not explained as well. Maybe Muddy Waters or B.B. King was different because I'm not mad about the race thing. I don't talk about the Black and white issue. I talk about the misuse of it and how they didn't give me the opportunity because I'm being Black.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHICKEN HEADS")

RUSH: (Singing) Daddy told me on his dying bed...

KELLY: When did things really start to click for you?

RUSH: 1968, when I went to Vee-Jay Records and I told him I had a record called "Chick Head."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHICKEN HEADS")

RUSH: (Singing) You come along, girl, what did I do?

He's said, "Chick Head." We can't write no record "Chick Head" He said, you mean "Chicken Head." I said, yes, sir, "Chicken Head." He said, yeah, you're from down South. They eat chicken head. He said, well, how the song go, boy? I said, Daddy told me on a dyin' bed. Give up the heart, but don't lose your head. You came along, girl. What did I do? Lost my heart, and my head went, too - which had nothing to do with a chicken.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHICKEN HEADS")

RUSH: (Singing) Let me in. Let me in. Let me in. Let me ease on in.

KELLY: I'm going to fast-forward us. Let me fast-forward us all the way to 2017 - must have been a banner year 'cause you won your first Grammy. You were 83 years old.

RUSH: Eighty-three years old - young man.

KELLY: What did that mean? This was for your album, "Porcupine Meat."

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY RUSH SONG, "PORCUPINE MEAT")

RUSH: I didn't know nothing about the Grammys or whatever. My producer Desmond said, Bobby Rush, you got a song that you think you want to put on? Yeah, I got a song I want to put on. I was afraid to tell him. I said, it's called "Porcupine Meat." He said, porcupine meat, and laughed at me, you know? He said, what that mean? That mean when you're in love with a woman. You know she don't mean you no good. But every time I leave, I come back for more. Now, that's porcupine meat - too fat to eat and too lean to throw away.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: It sounds like you're having fun.

RUSH: I have fun with everything I do. I have fun every day. Every day I get up is fun because when I think about what it could have been, I'm so thankful for what it is.

KELLY: Well, and then speaking of having fun, three years go by, and you win another Grammy...

RUSH: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Your second, at the age of 86.

RUSH: Yeah, doing what I want to do and what I wanted to do all the time, was strip my music down to the bare storytelling.

KELLY: Ah.

RUSH: That's all I wanted to tell. And my whole music is about the storytelling It's about the pencil, what I write about.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY RUSH SONG, "RECIPE FOR LOVE")

KELLY: So here you are, 89 years old. You've got a new album. Does it feel like you've done what you came to this earth to do?

RUSH: I have completed doing what I want to do, and having said all the things I would like to say. I can say some of the things I wanted to say when I was younger, and I couldn't say it then.

KELLY: Like what? What can you say now that you couldn't say when you were young?

RUSH: I think I can say something as a man, as a blues man and as a Black man. If I can make it as a country boy, farmer, as a Black man, certainly you can, too. That's the statement. Because when you fall and you wallow in it, that's no good. But when you fall and dust yourself off, get up. Do it again and again and again and again. Don't give up on yourself or anything you believe in. But just make sure you do it good. That's what I strive my whole life about, being good at what I do. You may not like old Bobby Rush. All you can say, I don't like him, but d***, he good.

KELLY: Bobby Rush. His new album is called "All My Love For You." Thank you.

RUSH: Thank you very much for having me. You're certainly welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.