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On August 28, 2020, Grammy-winning blues icon Bobby Rush will release Rawer Than Raw, a stripped down, acoustic tribute to the rich blues history of Mississippi featuring songs from a handful of blues greats from his adopted home state.
The record, on the 86-year-old’s own Deep Rush Records label in partnership with Thirty Tigers, is a follow-up to Rush’s Grammy-nominated 2019 album Sitting on Top of the Blues, and his first project since his acclaimed cameo in last year’s Golden Globe-nominated Eddie Murphy film hit Dolemite Is My Name.
Partly inspired by the popular series of intimate solo concerts Rush has made a mainstay of his concert calendar in the years since his first all-acoustic album (titled Raw), Rawer Than Raw casts a spotlight on five Mississippi Blues Hall of Famers: early acoustic blues greats Skip James and Robert Johnson, and Rush’s contemporaries on the music scene of the ’50s and ’60s,Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Muddy Waters. The record features a half dozen covers of some of their best-known songs rendered in Rush’s own inimitable, acoustic style, characterized by wailing harmonica and a stomping foot to keep the rhythm. There are also five Rush originals — “Down in Mississippi,” “Let Me in Your House,” “Sometimes I Wonder,” “Let’s Make Love Again,” and “Garbage Man,” all credited under his given name, Emmett Ellis, Jr. — whose country vibe matches the songs that inspired the album.
“Although I was born in Louisiana, I’m proud to call Mississippi home,” says Rush, who moved to Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1980s and traces his family connections to the Magnolia State back to his great grandparents. “I’m saluting Mississippi guys because they, to me, stayed truest to their roots. If you want to get the real deal of the blues, get it from the bluesmen who are from Mississippi. Whether they migrated somewhere else like Chicago or Beverly Hills, if they are from Mississippi you can hear the deep roots of Mississippi in their stories.”
Long considered one of the blues’ preeminent raconteurs, Rush has always placed a premium on stories in his music. In the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, his risqué, humor-filled chitlin’ circuit shows often featured long, drawn out narratives of romantic misadventures.
In the new century, as he made a bid for mainstream acceptance as one of the blues’ last connections to its golden age past, Rush began to tell different stories. His tale-spinning of a life spent playing 200-plus shows a year, and appearances in documentaries like “The Road to Memphis” episode of Martin Scorsese’s The Blues (2003), and Take Me to the River ( 2014), helped catapult his late-career star. Also in 2014, Bobby joined Dan Aykroyd on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to perform two songs, marking his first late-night television appearance.
At the same time, Rush began to tell different stories on record. In 2001, he earned his first Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album for Hoochie Man. In the years since he has been nominated for Grammys four more times, including last year for Sitting on Top of the Blues, to go along with 51 Blues Music Award nominations and 13 wins. Rush won his first Grammy in 2017 for Best Traditional Blues Album for the Rounder Records/Concord Music release Porcupine Meat, produced by Scott Billington.
Rawer Than Raw is a spiritual sequel to Rush’s 2007 all-original album Raw. That album was Rush’s first acoustic effort and proved a gamechanger for him, showcasing a different artistic side and exposing him to new audiences. It also inspired the creation of a companion acoustic show, Bobby Rush: An Intimate Evening of Stories and Songs, that remains a popular draw today.
True to its name, Rawer Than Raw was made simply with performances recorded as unadorned as possible, just Rush’s voice, guitar, harmonica, and feet. The album was recorded in Jackson over the span of several years with engineer and executive producer Randy Everett, himself a Mississippi native. The two focused on some of Rush’s favorite artists, selecting songs that were not only representative of them but that also fit with Rush’s own inimitable acoustic style.
“I could have done so many more people, but you can only put 10, 11 songs on a CD,” says Rush, who has hinted at plans to honor other artists in a similar way, perhaps focusing on performers from the other Southern states where he has lived, Arkansas and Louisiana. “This doesn’t mean these are the only people that I love or respect.”
With every selection, Rush found himself covering artists to whom he had a strong personal connection.