Kentucky agency strikes entertainer from summer concert list

Wednesday, March 24, 1999

Bobby Rush...
Bobby Rush

Kentucky parks officials recently pulled a blues artist hailed by some as “the best live entertainer you've never seen or heard” from a summer music festival, fearing that his act might be too sexy for a general audience.

Bobby Rush, a longtime blues entertainer from Jackson, Miss., was to perform this summer in the Hot August Blues & BBQ Festival at Kenlake State Resort Park in Hardin, Ky. The Kentucky Department of Parks, which is booking artists for the event, revoked its invitation to Rush.

Keith Federman, Rush's manager, said parks officials told him on Feb. 25 that they felt Rush's act was too sexually suggestive for the festival, “even though they had never seen him perform.”

“I feel like Bobby has a right to play that festival,” Federman said. “I would love to know who is responsible. If no one is responsible, then how come Bobby isn't playing that festival? The reality is that (these officials) are using the power they derive from their offices to remove Bobby Rush from the show.”

But parks officials claim they didn't have a contract with Rush because he never signed it.

“We sent it to him, but he never sent it back,” parks attorney Henry Curtis said. “It would be incorrect to say we had cancelled him or had a contract because neither of those events occurred.”

Federman admitted he hadn't returned the contract — signed by parks officials on Jan. 22 — but said he hadn't had time to get Rush to sign it.. He said he believed the contract was in force because parks officials ran a festival ad in Living Blues magazine highlighting Rush as a featured performer.

Despite that, Curtis says the issue remains a business matter, noting that the parks department's proposed contract with Rush included a termination clause allowing officials to cancel it “at any time upon thirty days written notice.”

“We made a business decision to go with another (headliner),” said Curtis, adding that parks officials are negotiating with another entertainer. “It's based on purely contract principles, and that's essentially our position in this matter.”

Everett Hoffman of the Kentucky Civil Liberties Union says he hopes parks officials will change their minds about Rush. He declined to talk about possible legal action.

“I think it's short-sighted for park officials to basically strike him for his music because they think his music is outside the mainstream,” Hoffman said. “After all, they are sponsoring a blues festival. It's incomprehensible how they can find Bobby Rush's music not perfectly acceptable for a blues festival.”

Hoffman says parks officials have a right to select entertainers for the festival, but he argues that the First Amendment prohibits them from canceling approved contracts based on content.

And that's what happened, Federman contends. He says the parks officials's decision to cancel Rush's contract was sparked by the station manager and a disc jockey at WKMS, a public radio station at Murray State University in Murray, Ky.

Station manager Kate Lochte told the Murray State News earlier this month that she became concerned about Rush's performance after reading a magazine article that profiled him as “the man behind the blues' most risqué act.” Lochte admitted that she had never seen Rush perform but thought the entertainer might be too much for the festival.

Lochte said that she wouldn't comment about the festival because she was worried that published reports had portrayed her inaccurately. She denied that she pressured park officials to cancel Rush's performance.

“Obviously, I'm uncomfortable being painted as a cultural racist,” she said. “I'm very sensitive to this issue, but I'm really uncomfortable with the way this is unfolding.”

Brett Bonner of Living Blues magazine said Lochte and parks officials “were alarmed perhaps only by what they had seen reported in the press. And none of them had ever seen him play before. They made a decision for the larger public for something they knew nothing about.”

Bonner said that festival-goers would miss out on a consummate showman on par with James Brown. A performer since the 1950s, Rush has played worldwide and has earned accolades ranging from the Blues Foundation's 1998 B.B. King Blues Hero Award to numerous nominations for the W.C. Handy Awards.

When Kenlake business manager Jerry Allen called Living Blues magazine last year for a recommendation for an entertainer for the festival, Bonner said he didn't hesitate to recommend Rush.

“I told him that if he wanted to put on a show to remember, Bobby Rush is your man,” he said. “That's what (Allen) went on. He wanted something different. He didn't want just a guitar slinger up there.”

Brett says that Rush, like many blues artists, is capable of a wide variety of shows. While he may put on a mature performance at an adult club, Rush “is also perfectly capable of going into a kindergarten and putting on a good show,” he said.

Any sexuality, even in Rush's adult shows, is usually implied because he doesn't swear onstage, Bonner says.

“It's a physical performance, but he isn't going to do any bumping and grinding,” he said. “And, sure, he usually has some women in the background. But so does Diana Ross.”