At 84 years old, bluesman Bobby Rush’s years on the road have earned him both a lot of accolades and a lot of nicknames.
Long called “King of the Chitlin’ Circuit” – the network of clubs and theaters where black acts could safely perform during segregation – Rush has had the honor to play alongside Muddy Waters, as well as have B.B. King as an admirer. He has received 17 blues music awards from various organizations over the years and is a member of the Blues Hall of Fame.
Thanks to the success of his last album, 2016’s “Porcupine Meat,” the musician now has one more title to add to his resume: Grammy Award winner.
“I thought I’d gone to heaven, man,” Rush says about winning Best Traditional Blues Album at the 2017 Grammy Awards. “When you’ve been recording for as long as I have, and you’re at the age I am, in the back of your mind you just think that you’re never going to win at that point. To win at this age and time? It’s sure better late than never.”
Rush, who will perform Jan. 25 at the Carolina Theatreas part of Take Me To the River: Memphis Soul & R&B Revue, remains at a loss for words to express his gratitude.
“So many people that I respect have won that award before me, and so many artists I respect have never even been nominated for it, so I accepted it for all of the guys who paved the way for me,” Rush said. “ ‘(Porcupine Meat)’ was my 374th record, so it took me 374 records to win that Grammy.”
To hear Rush tell it, it took until the recording of “Meat” for the Hall of Famer to realize just how much he means to the current generation of blues performers. It was his debut album for Rounder Records, and he began the recording process unsure of what to expect, not only from his new label, but also the performers he began approaching to appear on the disc. His fears were soon allayed.
“When I was approaching some of the guests that I wanted on that album,” Rush admits with a laugh, “in the back of my head I couldn’t help but think, ‘Man, how much money is this gonna cost me?’ Most of those guys ended up wanting to do it for (free), they respected me so highly. You never think you’ll make that kind of mark on someone in this life, but I was so happy to hear it.”
He praised Rounder Records for doing “so many great things for me, more than anyone else has ever done.”
“These guys wrapped their arms around me and just gave me all kinds of love,” he said. “Out of all of the records I’ve ever recorded, this was the first time I was able to record in Louisiana, and nearly all of the musicians came from Louisiana. Do you understand how good it felt to come back and record in my home state, win a Grammy for playing with a bunch of guys from my home state, and everyone in your hometown used to say you’d never do any good? Golly! You know how good it is to see someone from your hometown after something like that happens? I’m still on cloud nine.”
While Rush may hail from Louisiana, Memphis long has been the city that is most associated with the artist, so it makes sense that he would become involved with the folks behind Take Me To the River. Billed as “A Movement of Social Consciousness,” the current tour is just one of three approaches the organization uses to bring arts to those who otherwise go without, along with its film division and education initiative.
While Rush has been involved with all three aspects of group, the tour helps the singer meet what he considers his main goal, which is conveying just how important Memphis was to his generation of blues performers. Memphis worked as a link, Rush begins to explain.
“All the guys from Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, what have you, Memphis was the meeting point and crossroads to Chicago,” he said. “We all migrated through Memphis, then St. Louis, on our way to Chicago. If you were headed to (Los Angeles), there was nowhere to really meet up; it’s not like you were going to stop in Phoenix, especially as black men. As players from the Louisiana Delta, you could migrate up to Memphis, and make you a little money playing (clubs) on Beale Street. Then you could hit St. Louis and Chicago, and then if you were good enough, you’d go to New York.”
“Eight out of 10 bluesmen come from Southern states, thanks to that route through Memphis. The city worked as a melting pot, a place for all of the guys to stop while escaping from somewhere else.”
Who: Bobby Rush with Take Me To The River: Memphis Soul & R&B Revue (also featuring William Bell and Don Bryant)
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 25
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
Cost: $37.48, $48.23, $58.98
Info: CarolinaTheatre.org or 919-560-3030