Tom Rush on His Heroes and Letting Songs Happen
One of the great voices in folk music, Tom Rush isn’t about to live on his laurels at age 76. He just finished a new album that he plans to release in the fall.
“The recording is now done, though I may tweak a thing or two,” he says. “We are in the midst of a campaign at PledgeMusic.com to raise the money to get the artwork and manufacturing done. There will be an LP as well as a CD—sorry, no 8-track tapes.”
The subject matter “is, as usual, all over the place,” Rush says. “The interesting dimension is that, for the first time, I wrote all the songs except for two traditional tunes. I don’t want to forfeit my folksinger credentials!”
Musicians on the album include pianist Matt Nakoa, Sam Bush on mandolin and fiddle, Kathy Mattea and Suzi Ragsdale on background vocals, and “some of Nashville’s finest talent, who collectively refer to themselves as ‘Rooney’s Irregulars,’ ” Rush says.
That nickname comes from the album’s producer, Jim Rooney, whose extensive resume includes albums by Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Eric Von Schmidt, and Iris DeMent.
Nakoa, who graduated from Berklee College of Music in 2006, adds youthful vitality to a folk scene that has had difficulty attracting millennials. I ask Rush what is needed to get young ears to appreciate his music and that of Eric Andersen, Phil Ochs, Tin Hardin, Dave Van Ronk, and other great folk artists.
“If you figure this out, please let me know immediately,” he says. “At the Birchmere in Alexandria (Virginia), Michael Jaworek, the talent buyer, told me that millennials hardly ever show up for artists of my generation except for Leo Kottke, for whom some budding guitar players buy seats. Matt Nakoa is an uber-talented keyboard player—a kid who is a fabulous musician, sings like an angel, writes great songs, and is cute, or so the ladies tell me. My thought—other than having a brilliant accompanist who is also good company—was that Matt might draw in a younger crowd. That’s not working out, but he’s gaining a rabid audience among the silver-haired set.”
I tell Rush that I was very moved when he sang his most known song, “No Regrets,” at the Phil Ochs memorial concert at New York’s Felt Forum in May 1976, one month after Ochs committed suicide at age 35.
“I remember the show being a gathering of very talented artists paying tribute to one of their own,” Rush says. “I was honored to be included. Phil and I had the same manager, Arthur Gorson, so I ran into him a lot around Greenwich Village. He wrote some very moving songs—‘I Ain’t Marching Anymore,’ ‘There But For Fortune,’ ‘Draft Dodger Rag,’ on and on—and was a powerful voice for change at that time. He was a good man, and that’s about the highest praise I can think of.”
Besides his topical songs, Ochs was known for his activism and outspoken views on the direction and policies of the federal government. So I ask Rush for his views about the White House and Congress today.
“What’s happening in the White House is scary, but the acquiescence of Congress is even more disturbing,” he says. “What is encouraging is that some states, municipalities and millions of protesters are defying Washington. This end to passive acceptance is what might, in fact, make America great again!”
Two legends who made folk music great—Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger—were, like Rush, critically acclaimed and part of the Greenwich Village scene in the 1960s, but he doesn’t know them well.
“I don’t know Bob well at all,” he says. “I do recall having coffee with him in the Village in the spring of ’62, when his first recording had just come out. He was recognized by someone who said, ‘I don’t want to bother you, but I really like your new album.’ Bob buttonholed the guy and pumped him for affirmative comments for some time. He was clearly hungry, but then he’d been turned down by a lot of labels before John Hammond at Columbia recognized the talent.
“As for his catalog, he’s clearly all over the map. He’s done some stuff that I personally don’t think works at all, but he’s out there, experimenting, trying this and that and along the way has produced some brilliant songs. I predict that, if he keeps at it, he may someday make something of himself.”
Which songwriters does Rush hold in highest regard?
“Paul Simon, because he consistently comes up with such great stuff. Joni (Mitchell), Jackson (Browne) and James (Taylor), of course. Dylan for the flashes of brilliance. But there are many, many youngsters writing really good songs—Matt Nakoa and Seth Glier among them.”
Rush says he hasn’t attended many concerts by other artists. “When I’m on the road, I’m too busy, and, when I’m home, I’m too busy and too much of a hermit—though I’m working on that. On the rare occasions when I have gone to a concert, I’m usually more interested in studying the audience and how they’re experiencing the show than in what’s going on onstage.”
However, one recent concert “that blew me away,” he says, was a co-bill with Matt Nakoa and Seth Glier, two musicians who have accompanied Rush during his performances. “The energy, the songwriting, the stagecraft, and the musicianship were superb—and the audience appreciated it every bit as much as I did.”
The concerts that most influenced Rush musically were many decades ago in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at Club 47, “the coffee house where I got my start, one block from my dorm room, which led to some bad grades.”
“The 47 was the one room in town that made a point of bringing in the old-timers, the legends. It was an 80-seat room, but you could sit and listen to Maybelle Carter, Sleepy John Estes, Bukka White, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and others. Each one was a revelation, and I learned so much from them.”
Rush has always been a brilliant interpreter of other artists’ music, as well as penning his own powerful songs. His covers of Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going” and Jackson Browne’s “Jamaica, Say You Will” are transcendent as his baritone draws out the warmth and beauty of the melodies.
I ask him whether he consciously tries to inject beauty into his music.
“Thank you, but I don’t think I try to do anything when I’m writing—except stay out of the way and let the song be born with as little interference as possible,” he replies. “Kurt Vonnegut reportedly had a sign over his writing desk that said, ‘Don’t Think, Write!’ Wise words.”
What is Tom Rush’s legacy in popular music?
“Well, hopefully I’m not done doing whatever it is I do, so I have some time to work on the legacy bit,” he says. “I’d like to think I’ve helped some emerging artists to get where they were going, and that what I’ve personally created has provided people with some joy, some comfort and, occasionally, some respite from pain.”