A FEW MINUTES WITH… Tom Rush
By Don Wilcock
Decked out in his white suit, veteran folksinger Tom Rush – appearing Friday night at the Eighth Step at Proctors’ GE Theatre in Schenectady – looks so much like Mark Twain that it makes me wonder if he’s channeling the great American novelist and humorist 200 years later.
Now Rush is selling off the suit as part of a PledgeMusic fundraising campaign for his upcoming album. I asked him if he’s purposely trying to look like Samuel Clemens. “No, no. He was trying to look like me,” he says with a chuckle. “I realized when I put the white suit on, I really was inviting comparisons. I should sell that white suit as Mark Twain’s white suit and make that $1,600.”
You can purchase the suit (plus a signed copy of Rush’s 2012 Symphony Hall concert DVD/CD, Tom Rush Celebrates 50 Years of Music) for $750 at PledgeMusic. The jacket is a 44 regular and pants a 40 regular. I asked him if he’d give me a deal. “For you, $599.99,” he says laughing. “That’s the kind of guy I am.”
A third generation Harvard graduate, Tom Rush was my favorite coffeehouse performer during the Big Folk Scare of the ’60s in Harvard Square. Scott Alarik, The Boston Globe’s dean of folk music critics, wrote in 1999, “Tom Rush’s name is rarely trumpeted among the folk music giants of the past half-century. Yet it can be argued that the New Hampshire native has been the most consistently influential singer-songwriter to emerge from the ’60s folk revival.”
His best known known song from that era is “No Regrets,” a romantic lament that went on to be covered by Waylon Jennings, Harry Belafonte, Olivia Newton-John, Shirley Bassey, Emmylou Harris and Midge Ure, among others. In 1976 it was a major comeback hit for the Walker Brothers, spending 12 weeks on the British pop charts. Rush wrote the song for a girlfriend who appears with him on the cover of his classic 1968 Elektra album The Circle Game.
“She’s the one I wrote ‘No Regrets’ about. I wrote that when I first met her, and we hadn’t split up yet. We were actually having a pretty good time. She’d come up to Cambridge and spend the weekend with me, and I never spent that much time with anybody before, a romantic interest, and so when I put her on the plane to go back to New York, it felt strange to walk away alone. And that’s where the song came from. And from that I projected the end of an established love affair, but the event hadn’t happened yet.”
He doesn’t think the song precipitated his breakup with the girl. “I don’t think so. I don’t know if I can (relate) to her part in it, but I think I just wasn’t equipped. I wasn’t into a long-term relationship. And I was on the road five or 10 months out of the year. We weren’t actually together that much. But that song did put my first two kids through college. I’m glad I wrote it.”
When I talked to Rush, he was two songs shy of finishing the songs for his next CD, and it just may end up containing more originals than any album of his storied career. At age 76, he’s on a roll. I asked him what he would say to those who believe the creative muse dies in one’s youth.
“That’s bullshit. You can be as creative as you want to be, I think. I don’t know why I’m writing more songs than I did before. I think part of it was I was avoiding it. The best tunes are the ones that come the quickest. The stuff that flows easily is often times the best. The stuff that you pick up and edit and worry over gets weaker and weaker as you worry and edit and chip away at it. The ones that kind of pop out tend to be the better ones. People like ’em a lot, so I’m encouraged. I think Kurt Vonnegut had a sign over his writing desk: ‘Don’t think! Write!’ He was a fan of not thinking and letting it flow.”
Rush says it wasn’t a goal to do an entire album of originals. It just seems to be going in that direction. “You never know when you go into the studio. A song that you just threw in at the last minute turns into the powerhouse cut. You just don’t know what’s going to happen in the studio, and I’m thinking maybe it’ll be all my own stuff. I’ve got to write a couple more between now and the first of May.
“My favorite song is always the latest one, and the latest one is called ‘My Best Girl.’ It’s a song written about my guitar. It’s about a guitar that has a naked woman with a snake wrapped around her inlaid on the neck. The first line is, ‘My best girl, she’s big and round, Got a snake tattooed on her good right arm, Sometimes in the night, we’ll go dancing.’”
From Day One, Tom Rush stood out from the other Harvard Square troubadours. He wasn’t constricted by the early ’60s dictum that said you had to copy the old stuff. He actually had a voice that was supple and worked as well on blues as it did on Appalachian ballads and originals. He went indie earlier than his contemporaries and has always been prescient about the state of the music industry.
“I think the future is very bright for music. More people listen to more music than ever before. The future isn’t so bright for money. People don’t make money at it. Artists always make their living onstage. The album, in my mind at least, is promotion to get you to come to the show. I’ve made a little bit of money on the records, but essentially, I make my living on stage, and that’s still the case. And I think going forward now that’s the case for everybody.
“It is hard to make a living as a songwriter these days. It used to be if you wrote a good song, you made a lot of money. That’s no longer true. You hear these artists saying they sold 20,000 downloads on iTunes and their share is $15.12, stuff like that. It’s hard to make living writing music.
“And it’s hard to make a living selling records. As soon as you sell the first one, it’s up on YouTube and anybody who wants it can get it for free. They haven’t yet managed to digitize a live show, and so I think that’s where everybody who wants to make a living is gonna have to go.”
WHO: Tom Rush
WITH: Matt Nakoa
WHERE: The Eighth Step at Proctors, Schenectady
WHEN: 7:30pm Friday (April 28)
HOW MUCH: $30 in advance; $35 at the door; $50 VIP includes 6:30pm pre-show meet-and-greet