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Tom Rush: In an original voice

Singer-songwriter Tom Rush talks about his "Voices"...and other voices he has found.
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By Lee Zimmerman

Like many early instigators of America’s folk revival of the early ‘60s, Tom Rush made an indelible mark on the musical ethos by helping to revitalize American music tradition and share it with a new post-war generation. However, Rush went one step further by generously exposing the work of new and gifted artists first finding their voice in those ever-changing times. His early albums hewed to traditional standards, but with the release of his monumental album The Circle Game, Rush was revolutionized the template for those times by ushering in a new era, one where singer-songwriters created songs that would become the soundtrack for the lives of generations to come. The album offered the first widespread exposure for songs by James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell and all but assured their future ascent.

Rush created his own storied legacy from that time forward, moving from Elektra Records to Columbia and further imbuing himself in the folk firmament. When he left Columbia in the mid- ‘70s, his recorded output diminished considerably, left to rest with an occasional live album released under his own auspices. It was well over three decades until his next studio set, 2009‘s aptly titled What I Know appeared on his newly adopted label Appleseed, but the album established the fact that Rush had returned and he was still at the top of his game.

Even so, his surname aside, Rush works at his own pace, and so now, nine years after that last release, he’s made a another long awaited return with Voices, a set of songs mostly of his own composition. Its pair of traditional songs aside, it’s an unusual move for a man who has freely covered other’s compositions. Nevertheless, at age 77, Rush has made his masterpiece, part of a lingering legacy that knows no bounds.

“I’m very pleased with it,” he insists, his modesty clearly apparent.

Goldmine spoke to Rush from his home in Maine, and he was, as ever, amiable, good-humored and as personable as the persona he projects in concert.

GOLDMINE: We’ll start by asking, what instigated this fresh spurt of creativity after nearly a decade’s respite?

TOM RUSH: I have no idea. It just started off as a hiatus when we were moving out of Vermont, and we weren’t sure where we were going to settle because we didn’t know where our daughter would be going to school. We had a few months of in-between time, so our friends loaned us a house in this little village in New Hampshire. An old farmhouse out in the woods, and it was deliciously quiet and peaceful and calm ,and I had nothing to do because it wasn’t my house. I didn’t have to fix anything. So I started fiddling around with the guitar and songs started coming out of nowhere. It was lovely. Probably half of the album was written during those three or four months.

GM: Was there any thought about getting back to your traditional MO and interspersing some choice covers as well?

TR: I didn’t really have a plan. I was writing songs and thinking, well, do I have enough songs for a new album? At some point, it occurred to me that I had enough songs of my own, along with a couple of traditional songs I had been ruminating on for awhile. They didn’t have authors, so I thought it might be a nice theme for the album, all things that I had written myself. It is, as usual, schizophrenic — the contemplative stuff and the silly stuff and a rock ‘n’ roll song. I’m all over the place, as usual.

 Tom Rush performing at the Paradise in Boston, circa 1979. Photo by Edward Jenner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

Tom Rush performing at the Paradise in Boston, circa 1979. Photo by Edward Jenner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

GM: We get the sense that you have a very idyllic existence, living up there in New England, and that your music is a reflection of that peaceful and tranquil life that you have. Is that an accurate assessment?

TR: (laughs) I don’t know. I have the usualbattles to fight that everybody else has. I’m not sure that I would characterize my life as peaceful and tranquil.

GM: You had your start in the heyday of the ‘60s, a time of turbulence and turmoil... much like today. However, you were never really a protest singer like a lot of your peers.

TR: It’s true. My thinking is that my shows should be an oasis, a chance for folks to get away from the problems of the day. I participated in some protest stuff, but I never took it onstage, although I have a couple of songs now that do go in that direction. I do one song where the premise is that the poor have too much money and the rich don’t have enough. I play mainly for rich folks, at least in the overall scheme of things.

GM: Why the long layoff that transpired up until 2009?

TR: My contract with Columbia called for a new album, but they let the contract lapsed. So I did one more album for them, Ladies Love Outlaws, and I went out on the road to promote it the day after I got married. And after that, I quit showbiz and it lasted for about nine months. But I got itchy to do some shows because I really do love doing shows, and so I went back to performing but not recording. Around ’79, I did a couple of live albums on my own label. I did try to get another major label deal, but I couldn’t line one up. It didn’t occur to me to connect with a smaller label, so I put out of a couple of CDs and LPs and they did well. However they weren’t well distributed, and unless you were on my mailing list or came to one of my shows, you wouldn’t know they existed. I didn’t have a radio promo person or anything like that. I did that for a couple of albums, and they did well enough, but finally, Jim Musselman from Appleseed Records persuaded me that I should go in the studio with Jim Rooney as my producer. Jim and I go way back to the days of Club 47 in Cambridge in the ‘60s, but now he’s a Nashville producer who is very well respected. I said okay, let’s see what happens, and as it turned out, we had a lot of fun. That album we did was called What I Know, and I thought it was delightful and the best work I had done so far. So when I got this new batch of songs together, I called up Jim Mussleman and Jim Rooney and said, let’s see what we can do. I think this one’s even better by a wide margin.

GM: Funny. You know, there are people that when they reach a certain age, they’re content to retire, relax, sit in a rocking chair...Maybe play a little golf...

TR: I don’t do golf. I was actually talking to Tom Paxton about retirement, and he said, “What would I do? Sit around and play guitar all day?”

GM: Willie Nelson said much the same thing.

TR: It’s what we do. Why should we stop? It’s what we love doing.

GM: Are you still keeping up your tour schedule?

TR: Oh yeah. I’ve got a kid in college. I can’t stop anytime soon.

GM: Do you still enjoy doing it?

TR: I love doing shows. The traveling is getting more and more onerous, but I love doing the shows.

GM: The last time we saw you, during your break, you made your way out to the merch stand for a meet and greet between sets. Like a man of the people.

TR: Well, I figure these people have been paying my rent for 56 years or whatever it is, and I enjoy getting to meet a few of them.

GM: Do you have a bucket list of some things that you would still love to do?

TR: Well, yeah, I’m working on maybe too many projects. I have three different books in the works, one of which is way ahead of the other two in terms of making progress. And I’ve got these ideas for sculptures, and I’m trying to figure out how to get them done because I don’t actually have the skill set to create them. I have the ideas but I don’t have the skills needed for fabrications. And I have some hair-brained ideas for inventions. I actually have a folder full, some of which other people have brought into the marketplace and done very well with. Had I actually done anything about it, it might have been a successful project. So, yeah, I have a bunch of stuff I’d like to do.

GM: Much of that seems to have nothing to do with music. You’re branching out.

TR: It might not, but I suspect some other songs will happen. At some point, I want to make another album.

GM: Where do your ideas come from when you’re writing a song? Are the ideas just sort of things that connect with your life?

TR: Not consciously, The songwriting process for me is something that I would liken to a distant radio station that fades in and out. The songs already exist, and I’m just trying to coax them into this world. The radio station fades in and out and I get a little bit of it, but then I lose the connection. I get another line or two the next time when it fades back in. That’s how the songwriting goes. I don’t sit down and say, “I want to write a song about something deliberately.” I’ve done one or two that way, but generally they just kind of seep in and I try to hear it.I remember hearing about this one writer who had a sign above his desk that said, “Don’t think. Just write.” I think that’s a good idea. Just let it flow. Don’t stare at it too hard. You might scare it away.

GM: Inevitably you do have to go back and tweak however.

TR: Oh yeah, there’s the editing process. You might put too much stuff out there. You have to go back with a focused mind and say, this bit works, and that part works, and then tie it together somehow. You have to put your thinking hat on at some point. But as far as the creative part, you just have to let it flow and just let it happen.

GM: You of course wrote one of the greatest songs of all time in our opinion. “No Regrets.” How did that song come about?

TR: There was this girl who was living in New York and I was living in Cambridge, and at the time, I was extremely fond of her. So she flew up and spent the weekend with me. At that point, I had never spent the weekend with anybody. Especially for several days in a row. So I took her to the airport Sunday night to put her on the airplane to go home, and, as the lyric says, it felt strange walking away alone. That’s where the song came from, and from that I imagined a long relationship that was ending. And it all came true. We ended up having a long relationship that ultimately ended. The song was predictive.

GM: So many people have covered it. Have you ever heard Midge Ure’s version?

TR: I have. I say onstage, there have been so many readings of it. A heavy metal version that I find to be opaque. There was a hip-hop version. Johnny Cash covered it. Waylon Jennings, Shirley Bassey and on and on and on.

GM: It seems appropriate, given that you had shared so many great songs by other people through the years. It feels only right that other people would share your songs as well.

TR: Maybe some of these newer songs will get the same treatment. We’ll have to wait and see.

GM: Are there any current artists that you’re following or feel especially impressed by?

TR: There’s a young guy who has been my accompanist for the last couple of years, a fellow by name of Matt Nakoa. He’s a monster talent. I took him down to Nashville and he blew them away down there. You have the best session men on the planet and here they were, listening to him play. I heard one of them say, “I don’t think he’s from around here.”There was another moment in the sessions where the engineer said, “Matt, get on the B3 and do a big sweep up and sweep down. Matt said, “I have no idea what you just told me to do, but if that’s what you want, I can do it better. And the engineer comes on the mic and says, “Matt, we ain’t making music for musicians.” Words to live by.

GM: Indeed, your music is so accessible. Many artists feel the need to put in these huge arrangements and create some kind of epoch. But your music creates a direct connection.

TR: I take that as high praise. My take is that music is all about making a connection. A personal connection between the artist and the person looking at the painting or listening to the music. I think the engineer did an almost surreal job. I was singing softly much of the time in the studio. Half the time I’m narrating. Yet my vocals are crystal clear without being terribly loud. I don’t know quite how he did that. You can hear every word, every vocal. There’s a lot going on in the background, but it’s not very loud, but it’s still very clear. It’s some kind of magic that this guy does.

GM: Are you a nostalgic kind of guy? After 55 years, do you look back and reminisce?

TR: No, I really don’t. I’m much more interested in what’s going to happen next. I don’t spend a lot of time looking backwards. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

GM: James and Jackson and Joni owe you an incredible debt of gratitude. Have they ever expressed their thanks to you?

TR: Some folks up in Ottawa did a video biography of me, and they got James to sit in front of the camera and say some nice things about me. He actually talks about how I was a big influence on him when he was developing his craft. The Circle Game album introduced those three artists to the world, but I wasn’t looking to discover anybody. I was just looking for good songs. I really, sincerely believe that those artists would have gotten to where they were going without me. They were so good. I was privileged to be able to record their songs, but I don’t think I was responsible in any way for their later success.

GM: Still, an introduction means something. It might have taken longer without that.

TR: I think the serendipitous thing about The Circle Game album was that those three artists were introduced all at once, which got people’s attention. Rolling Stone once wrote that that album introduced the singer-songwriter era. I happened on the extreme brilliance of these songwriters at the same time, and that was important to get people to say, “Whoa, something’s going on here.” That I think was the contribution that that album made.

GM: You certainly have a damn good ear.

TR: Well, thank you. Finding other people’s songs is a lot easier than writing them.

GM: How did you come upon those songs?

TR: In each of those cases it was a little different. I met Joni at a coffeehouse in Detroit. She asked me if she could do a guest set so I could hear some of her songs. She had just started writing. I was blown away and I asked her for more songs, and I ended up recording three of them and naming the album after one of them. James Taylor... it was funny. I had a roommate in Cambridge named Zach Wiesner, who was in the band The Flying Machine. He kept telling me I have to hear this kid in his band, but I kept brushing him off. The kid was James Taylor, and I actually met him through Paul Rothchild, who was my producer at the time. He told me about this songwriter guy and said I would probably like him. I remember we sat on this floor of this empty room at Elektra Records and James sang me a bunch of songs into the tape recorder. I ended up using one or two of them. He was on his way to England, and the rest of course is history. Peter Asher, his producer, was out doing a lecture one time, and he said that when he heard I had recorded one of James’ songs, he said, “That’s good enough for me. I’ll sign him up.” Jackson Browne was actually being published by Elektra, and they had a bunch of demos of his songs, and that’s how I met him, through his publishing demos.

GM: Do you still have the tape James recorded for you?

TR: No, it burned up in a fire. I also don’t have the tape that Joni sent me after I asked her for more songs. She sent me a tape of six songs. It was kind of precious. Just before the last song came on, she apologized. She said, “I’m so sorry, I just finished writing this song. It’s really no good. I’m so sorry.” It was “The Circle Game.” But that tape also burned up in the house fire.

GM: Do you see these folks at all any more?

TR: Not really. I only see them from time to time. Every few decades. Joni of course had a stroke and has become a bit of a recluse lately. A few years ago she came to a show I was doing in Santa Monica, as did Jackson. I actually did a political fundraiser with James. He was doing a show in the town I was living in at the time.

GM: We would bet that you getbig hugs when they see you, And deservedly so. In these turbulent times, we need more folks like you to calm us down and get us in a more amiable mood.

TR: I do the best I can.

GM: We need you more than ever, sir.

TR: (Chuckles, feigns earnestness) Okay, okay. I’ll get to work. (laughs).