The bluesman returns with a smaller band for his new "Down in Louisiana" album.
Updated We may be in an economic recovery but it's a pokey one, one that has even affected bluesman Bobby Rush. His Down in Louisiana is due out Tuesday, and it features him with a sparer lineup than usual - his concession to the times. When clubs are dying, festivals are tightening their budgets, he's making it easier to book him. He's known for putting on a big, bawdy show complete with dancing girls, but, he says, "I've got to break it down to a smaller band to do acoustic kinds of things so that those who cannot afford a Buddy Guy or a B.B. King can still afford a Bobby Rush. I'm going to be the one they can reach out for."
It's not a change that sits easily for him. He feels for the guys he has employed - "Musicians need work too because they have families" - but the decline in the Chitlin Circuit and regional juke joints has made touring harder for the blues greats, and now in his 70s, even Rush has to figure out how to be cost effective. "I've got two or three hats I wear, man. When they want the acoustic thing, I've got that. When they want the band, I've got that. When they want the Las Vegas show thing with the girls, I've got that too."
Rush is in a reflective mood that coincides with the release of his new album. Its title reflects his state of origin, but he left in the late '40s when his preacher father moved to Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He was playing in Chicago in its heyday, but he's lived long enough to watch his contemporaries decline and pass away. The business he once knew has undergone drastic changes, and while he's still in pretty good health, he knows he's in his later years. "At my age, I think about how long I'm going to be on this world," Rush says. "There will come a time when I cannot do; I don't want to regret what I did not do."
Down in Louisiana reflects that sensibility. He still can't say no to a randy double entendre ("You Like a Dresser") or a funky good time ("Rock This House"), but he also finishes with "Swing Low," his groove-oriented version of the well-known spiritual. Hearing Rush with a stripped-down band reminds listeners that he's more than just a showman, but he never puts aside his signatures for long. The band may be smaller, but he revisits his classic "Bowlegged Woman" for the album at the request of producer Paul Brown.
"I hadn't planned to do 'Bowlegged Woman,'" Rush says, but he recorded it and liked the results enough to release it. The version's pretty faithful to his original, but for those who discovered Rush in recent years, it's good to have. And it reflects his sensibility, particularly juxtaposed with "Swing Low" as it is on the album. "We have to have jokey kinds of things to keep us in line with ourselves. You can have the blues because your girlfriend left you, but you can also have the blues because she stayed too long."
Rush attributes his longevity to his independence. "I can call my shots," he says. "You don't have to call my management company to get an interview with me because what I say is what it is. Bobby Rush is a common ol' country boy, and I'm happy with my freedom and who I am. I'm a storyteller. I want to get my story told."
Updated 12:50 p.m.
Down in Louisiana is due out next Tuesday, February 19. It was not released yesterday. The text has been changed to reflect this correction.