The Blues Foundation's 38th Annual Blues Music Awards (BMA's) were held Thursday night at a packed Cook Convention Center, and for those few hours, a kind of blues utopia materialized in downtown Memphis. First and foremost, it was a utopia for blues fans of all stripes, with performances by luminaries old and new keeping everyone moving and “rattling their jewelry” at the gala event. But it was a utopia as well for the performers and others in this niche of the music industry, coming together to renew old friendships, forge new ones, and see the once-humble world of blues entertainment exploding before their eyes. Paradoxically, and perhaps due to the blues' homespun values, the community has lost none of it's personal quality even as the industry of the blues has grown.
“It's the biggest night in blues. We have two Grammy award winners, Fantastic Negrito and Bobby Rush, and they presented together,” explained Blues Foundation president Barbara Newman, who noted that the personal quality of the gathering remained intact. “It's all about relationship-building. It's a big reunion. And everybody's looking out for everybody else. All the nominees want to win, but they're really happy for their friends if they don't.” Having headed the organization for less than two years, she's made it her goal to reach beyond the established community. “The blues world knew about the Blues Foundation, but people that love the blues, but aren't necessarily entrenched in the blues, didn't know us, and we're working to get them to know who we are. We're seeing a lot more excitement and energy. Our social media has popped. There's been huge growth there.”
Highlights of the night included a soulful set by Betty Lavette, who fondly recalled recording one of her hits here in Memphis forty-eight years ago, and a bristling performance by longtime Muddy Waters sidekick John Primer. Primer delivered the most gripping solos of the night, playing bottleneck slide in frenzied, coruscating sheets of sound, invoking the early Chicago scene one minute, quoting the Star Spangled Banner in the next. Pausing between numbers, he noted, “You know, I won one of these trophies last year. But I'll be so happy when someone else wins. I don't need five or six trophies. Let these young people win some and keep the blues alive.”
And while many young talents were recognized last night, the royalty of the evening was clearly Bobby Rush, fresh off his recent Grammy win for Best Traditional Blues Album. At the BMA's, not only did his Porcupine Meat win Album of the Year, his fifty-year career retrospective on Omnivore Recordings, Chicken Heads, won Historical Album of the Year. “It makes me feel old!” quipped Rush. “But it's a blessing to get old. You put your mark on a wheel and you roll it down a hill, and your mark come back to you.”
Musing on the four disc set, Rush noted, “to have a CD out with this many records, you have to be blessed enough to have that many masters. Because the masters that I have, I own. Not many artists, especially black artists, own their own masters.” Was this due to his business smarts at the time? “Now I think it's smart. But I was blessed, because I think what happened was, they counted me out, 'cos I was just a little blues guy, would never amount to anything. 'Let him have it, he's not gonna do anything with it.' And all of a sudden I get 80 years old, and I have a valuable piece of property.” Rush hinted at more retrospectives to come. “That's not even about half of it. I probably have another 120 songs in the can,” he said before adding, with his eye on the future, “My motto is, 'I must do all I can while I can.' The best song never been sung yet.”