The Catalyst interview: Tom Rush
More than six decades have come and gone since New Hampshire’s Tom Rush first walked onstage with an acoustic guitar, a warm baritone voice and a hatful of folk songs. While he was studying literature at Harvard, Rush became a Hoot Night regular at the legendary Club 47 in Cambridge.
He’s 81 now, and will perform Feb. 2 at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater, bringing along “Merrimack County,” “No Regrets,” “Ladies Love Outlaws,” “Wrong End of the Rainbow” and the other tunes that made him a giant in the neo-folk movement of the ‘60s and beyond.
Rush comes from the coffeehouse school of troubadours – he weaves a spell with both music and seemingly spontaneous storytelling. He is an agreeable sort.
“I learned early on that if the audience likes you, they’re much more apt to learn the song you’re about to do,” he tells the Catalyst. “ So I would try to get ‘em engaged and invested in what was about to happen. Sometimes the stories were about the songs, sometimes they weren’t. But it helped to draw them in, and get them focused.”
Sixty-some years of concerts have honed his storytelling skills to a stratospheric level. He says, for example, that he’s been performing, almost non-stop, since his first album was released in 1962.
In 1974, Rush begins, “I moved to New Hampshire, bought a farm and retired. I’d been on the road relentlessly, and I remember that I got married in ’74 – and the day after the wedding I had to fly to Atlanta to do some promo.
“And I got down there, it was a Friday, and the promo guy from Columbia Records wasn’t answering his phone. I hung out, and I tried calling him all weekend. Finally got him on Monday, and he said ‘Tom, what are you doing in town?’ And I decided right then and there I’d had enough.”
But the retirement was a failure. “It lasted nine months,” Rush says. “I missed being onstage.”
There is, of course, an honorable tradition of storytelling in folk music. “There was a guy named Robert L. Jones, Bobby Jones, who’d get up onstage and say ‘Sorry I’m a little late. I just got back from a meeting … and a funny thing happened at the tollbooth coming back …’
“I saw him actually go for 45 minutes once without doing a song! He didn’t realize it – he said ‘Thank you,’ got offstage, and he hadn’t sung a song yet.”
Although Rush is himself a gifted songwriter, he’s revered in certain circles as the guy who first recorded songs by Joni Mitchell (“Urge For Going,” “The Circle Game”), James Taylor (“Something in the Way She Moves,” “Sunshine, Sunshine”) and Jackson Browne (“Shadow Dream Song”) – in 1968, before anyone had ever heard of any of them.
“The Circle Game album reputedly started the whole singer/songwriter movement,” Rush admits. “But I wasn’t trying to start any movement, or discover any artists, I just needed some good songs. Because I was overdue for delivering an album to Elektra. And these were fabulous songs that I thought I could do – I could add my own perspective to them.
“And when I’m doing other people’s songs, that’s really all I want. I want a song that gives me goosebumps, that I think I can do something different with. I don’t want to just mimic the original. In fact, when I’m learning a song I stop listening to the original, then a I’m playing it, it gradually comes loose from its moorings and becomes different.”
In the latter days of the pandemic’s first and worst year, Rush went virtual – he began a series of short video performances, called “Rockport Sundays” (after one of his most famous songs). Usually, he’d sit in his kitchen, in southern Maine, talk about a song and then play it. “Thank God for my subscribers,” he says – it was a nice source of income during the dark times, when touring wasn’t possible.
He’s done 112 of them (at tomrush.com) with no end in sight. Still, he says, “I’ve learned that when you tell a joke to a video camera, it doesn’t laugh. I love playing for people.”
Rush muses that he’s about seven months younger than David Crosby, who passed away Jan. 18. Like him, Crosby never tired of the road. He was planning a new album and tour when he died.
“He was a difficult one,” Rush says. “Contentious. It’s funny, the outpouring of sentiment about his passing … people remember him very fondly. I’ve observed in the past that it’s the shows that don’t go right that people remember, decades later. The ones where there are some problems, but everything works out OK: ‘I was at Symphony Hall when the lights went out.’ I think Crosby is kind of like that.”
They first crossed paths around 1962, Rush recalls, during the fever dream of folksinger flush in Coconut Grove, Florida.
“I remember Crosby bringing a pistol to a party, and showing it around,” he says. “Everybody was taking it and pointing it at each other. It was not good gun etiquette; I went home early.
“Later, I remember him telling me that when he was in prison in Texas, they taught him how to make mattresses. So that he would have some way of making a living when he got out.”
Pause. “I’m sure they meant well.”
Tickets for the Feb. 2 show are here.