Austin Living: A lifetime of Music

Published 6:20 pm Tuesday, March 5, 2024

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From 9 to 81, Barry Rush has experienced all the joys that music has to offer

If you’re familiar with the music scene here in Austin, or really anywhere, there is a reasonable chance you’ve danced to the music of Barry Rush. At the very least, there is a good chance you’ve at least heard of him.

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Rush has some of the deepest roots to the community’s music scene in Austin, and even after turning 81 recently, he continues to grow those roots.

“An old friend told me once, ‘Barry, don’t ever turn down a gig,’” Rush said from his self-styled music room in the basement of his home. “I don’t think I have.”

Sitting at the heart of this room, Rush is surrounded by visual and musical links to his past. Pictures of bands he’s played in and venues he’s performed in hang from the walls, crates of records and music are visible and of course, guitars adorn their spots on the wall like shrines.

Rush began playing that very same instrument in 1951 at the age of nine. In those days guitars didn’t take center stage like they do in bands today.

“In those days the guitar was basically a rhythm instrument or a background instrument,” Rush remembered. “Mostly acoustic and flattops and that was what I was going to do. I started learning more and more about the guitar.”

Aside from a stint as a tuba player in high school, the guitar occupied the center of Rush’s world, coaxed on at that early age by the arrival of Len Dingly.

Austin Living March-April 2024

Dingly had purchased a local music store at the time and showed Rush there was more than just rhythm to the guitar.

“He was a great player and he made me learn that there’s more frets on the guitar than the first three of them,” Rush said with a chuckle. “He made me learn how to play the guitar. He taught me how to read music. Taught me and gave me the ability to play with a lot of different bands.”

It was just the beginning, starting early with opportunities to play with the local band the Little Green Valley Gang on Saturday nights.

Much like the Grand Ole Opry, there was a regular group of musicians that played, but then others would also be afforded the opportunity to hit the stage.

His tuba-playing days came after the transfer in eighth-grade from a one-room school house on the outskirts of Austin to Austin Public Schools. Here he showed interest in playing the drums, but the director at the time vetoed that idea, citing an already large number of drummers.

“He grabbed a tuba and said, ‘you’re a big, strong kid. You play this,’” Rush said. “I said, ‘okay, I’m a tuba player.’”

He even played tuba outside of the school, but the guitar always called him back and would, throughout his life, give him plenty of opportunities to play with an array of talented musicians.

One of those musicians early on was Geordie Hormel during the Eagles Telethon at The Terp Ballroom.

Done playing his own set, Rush was talking with Hormel late in the evening when the need suddenly arose to fill in some time.

“One of those people came up and said, ‘we’re kind of running out of talent. You got anyone you can play with for 10-15 minutes?’” Rush said. “Geordie said sure and got his bass player — greatest bass player I’ve ever heard in my life. Geordie was a helluva piano player and singer.”

“That was kind of a highlight in my life,” he added.

More highlights were to follow, especially as musical trends began to shift. Rush said that the move came as musical acts began to drift from the big bands and crooners of the day to more rock and pop based groups. Du-wop groups.

Rush himself was influenced by a local high school group called The Saints. The sound immediately drew Rush’s attention.

“I was watching them play in a high school show and I said, ‘I’ve got to get into that somehow,’” he said.

A friend eventually got Rush into the scene and things began opening up from there, including a chance to play at the National Disc Jockey’s Convention, where Rush opened for Dale Hawkins, the voice behind “Susie-Q.”

The down side was, thousands of people were in attendance and Rush only had house mics to sing through.

“I don’t know if anybody heard us or not,” he said with a wry smile.

More bands came, records were written and produced. Opportunities to play ahead of Sonny James or to back up Jimmy Clanton filled Rush’s nights.

“He was more concerned with making sure his hair was combed properly,” Rush remembered. “It was the first time I actually saw girls faint. That wasn’t because of us, but because of him.”

There were certainly no lost opportunities and as Rush tells it, he always had a place to play.

Later in life, while working for Hormel Food Corps in Massachusetts, he found even more opportunities to play. Many of those opportunities were with big bands and thanks to his ability to read music and charts was able to make the best of both worlds.

“I could play the things needed to play on guitars, but I could also read the piano charts,” Rush said. “They got two for the price of one.”

Another opportunity was playing with musicians that were coming out of the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Eventually, Rush moved back to Austin and hooked up with musicians he had grown up with and began working on the idea of getting back into the local music scene.

“When I moved back to Austin, I thought everybody’s going to break down my door asking me to play,” Rush said. “The phone didn’t ring, nobody wrote, so I went in Apold Music and talked to Bill Apold. Me and him used to play when we were young.”

Rush Hour was born in 2003 with the desire to play clubs or any other opportunities that came about.

At the age of 57, Rush retired from Hormel and turned to the next chapter in his life: playing music and taking care of animals. For 20 years, Rush has been volunteering at the Mower County Humane Society.

It completed his goals.

“I’ve done what I wanted to do with my life,” Rush said.

Rush said he’s just as enamored with playing music as he was at the age of nine. Everything about being on a stage still calls him.

“There’s just no feeling like when the guitars are tuned good and the tempo is right and the sound is good,” he said. “There’s just nothing like it.”

And to that end, Rush still gets that same feeling of being on stage that he did at the heart of Austin’s music scene.

“That’s why I keep doing it,” he said.