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INTERVIEW: Tom Rush

Tom Rush emerged during the folk music scene of the early ‘60s and is still actively creating music and touring. Widely hailed as a masterful singer, songwriter and storyteller, he is credited with “ushering in the singer-songwriter” era that includes Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.

CincyMusic caught up with him as he prepared to hit the road accompanying Janis Ian on her farewell tour.

CincyMusic:
 How is your health doing? I saw that at the start of Covid that you had come down with it and were recovering, but have you managed to stay healthy since?

Tom Rush:
Yes. I was an early adapter [laughs]. That was in March of 2020, and it was no fun at all. But I didn't get hospitalized. It was basically two weeks of feeling crummy, and I'm all better now. And quadruple vaccinated. But, yeah, I don’t recommend getting Covid. It's not fun.

How do you feel about getting back on the road? Any trepidation about getting back in venues and performing again?

No, not really. Each venue has their own rules about whether you have to show a Covid card or not. And I will go out and, you know, meet the crowd after the show. I wear a mask, I hope they do too.

Oh, awesome.

But it's great to be back playing for real live people. I've been doing, for a little over a year now, I've been doing an online series called Rockport Sundays, which has been a lot of fun. But I have learned that when you tell a joke to a video camera, it doesn't land [laughs].

[Laughs] I remember early in quarantine when Saturday Night Live was trying to do virtual shows. Seeing comedy without an audience was about the most surreal thing I've seen in a long time.

Yeah. It's really hard to make it work.

Well, I imagine it’s also the kind of rapport between the audience and playing music, not just telling jokes, right? The energy and empathy with the crowd.

Exactly. Exactly right. So, it's great to be back playing for people.

Yeah. Fantastic. And I don't know if you've played Memorial Hall in Cincinnati, that's where you'll be playing. It's a gorgeous old hall, it's a really lovely theater. I think you're gonna love it.

I've seen pictures, I don't think I've been there before.

It's really beautiful and has great sound, a perfect venue for you, I think. So, I wanted to ask because I've seen this cited many times and I’d like to get your opinion on it. I think it was Rolling Stone that credited you with quote “ushering in the singer songwriter era”, [Tom Laughs] which is a lot to put on your shoulders. But you know, that kind of genre has existed at least within my lifetime and [it seems] Dylan was [always] around and a lot of folks including you were already establishing your careers. Can you take us back to those times and the genesis of [the singer songwriter era]? Was it more stuff like Elvis and Chuck Berry were around and this was just a very different thing…more folky, solo, personal stuff? It feels like that storytelling and song playing has existed for eons. So, how did it not always exist? [laughs]

It has for sure. Well, basically, you know, there were Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and The Weavers, a whole bunch of folk entities back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. And then somewhere around… the rock and roll thing happened in the late ‘50s. And it was fabulous. That's when I started listening to music. And one of the striking things to me was that all these superstars were totally different from one another. Elvis was nothing like Fats Domino who was nothing like The Everly Brothers who were nothing like Chuck Berry. But it only lasted about four or five years, and then it just disappeared and the music that came in was pretty bland in my mind and I think a lot of people's minds. And so, the crowd that I was hanging out with in Cambridge, Massachusetts discovered traditional folk music- you know, the songs that nobody wrote. There are a thousand different versions of “Barbara Allen” and no one of them is the right version.

Did some of that originate from the Harry Smith Anthology [The Anthology of American Folk Music, 1952]. I'm trying to, like, parse the timeline of when that came out. I know that was hugely influential.

Yeah, it was. I can't give you a year for that either. But yeah, that was a great anthology. And then we discovered some of the old blues guys were making recordings that didn't really make it into the marketplace that we were used to. So, we were hunting around for…collecting 78s by these guys. And it was really exciting. And I, originally, when I first started recording, I was mainly recording my version of traditional material, including blues. I was kind of a generalist. A lot of my friends and colleagues were specialists, they would only do Woody Guthrie songs or only do bluegrass. And I kind of skipped around and took one from here and one from there. But then I finally kind of ran out of traditional stuff that I was interested in doing. And I was kind of on pause for a couple of years and was way overdue for delivering an album to Electra. And I met Joni Mitchell in Detroit at a club. She came and she just started writing songs. I was the first one to record her material. Jackson Browne was being published by Electra records, so I had to access to his demos. And James Taylor, I met again at Electra, live in person. I remember, we sat on a floor in an empty room that had no furniture. We sat on the floor with a tape recorder and he played me some songs. But I think the “ushering in the singer songwriter” thing came about because these three brilliant writers were represented on one album for the first time.

It really is staggering; it almost sounds like a Forest Gump scenario. Like yeah, we're just, you know, hanging out with some of the most brilliant songwriters of the last couple generations. That's phenomenal. And I know you covered “These Days” days by Jackson Browne. Actually, I'm taking guitar lessons and I just learned that the other week.

Great song.

It just knocks me out. I think he wrote that at sixteen. It's like, how is that humanly possible?

That's one of the reasons I hate him [laughs].

[Laughs] Well, I'm sure there's probably some mutual envy. I see folks like… obviously James Taylor mentions you as a big influence. Garth Brooks was just here for two nights in Cincinnati playing our football stadium and I know he cites you as huge influence as well. So, I think you have plenty of your own heavyweight fans out there.

I'm gonna go see Garth for the first time, this coming Saturday.

His show looked amazing; the stadium was full. I was watching The Who last night, so I missed it. But that’s not a bad consolation prize for sure.

No, no, not at all.

So, you have just completed... I believe your sixtieth year of actively being in this business? Is that right? Or would that have been last year?

No, I think it's this year. When my first album came out in ‘62…and obviously, I'd been playing for a couple years before I recorded my first album. [But] that's when I start the clock, ‘62. So, 2022 would be sixty years later.

Wow. So, what are your plans? Obviously, you’re on the road. Are you touring solo or will you have bandmates?

Well, I'm working with Janice Ian. I'm basically opening the show for Janice.

Fantastic.

She's doing her farewell tour, and I think she actually means it [laughs]. In 2020, I announced my first annual farewell tour [laughs]. I had a t-shirt made up with all the gigs on the back with all the towns we were gonna play. And then I had to come up with a pandemic edition of the t-shirt [with] 64 shows crossed off.

Well, I mentioned I saw The Who last night, and their first farewell roll tour was in 1982. They've been ‘farewelling’ for 40 years, so, yeah [both laugh]. I know you're still creating new material, but obviously, people will expect a retrospective of your long-storied career. How are you approaching creating new material after all this? Do you find motivation comes easily or do you have to work at it after sixty years of telling stories and creating songs?

Well, it's work, but it's fun. I mean, that's… they call it ‘playing’ the guitar. The work part is actually the traveling and doing the administrative stuff. Janice is telling me she's... she's been her own manager for the past few decades. And I said, I've been my own manager too. It's kind of like being your own dentist.

[Laughs] That's well said. It's... Yeah. It'd be a nice luxury to have somebody take all that off your shoulders. You can just focus on creating art and enjoying the road while you can.

I had a string of pretty bad managers. So, I do it myself and that's not the fun part. The fun part is getting up on stage and playing for people. The traveling is, you know… I'm on a plane tomorrow to go out to Ohio and play Columbus Wednesday night and then up to Cincinnati for Thursday.

Well hope everything goes smooth. I know you are prolific storyteller. Have you been to Cincinnati before or do you have any favorite memories of Cincinnati?

I can't come up with one on the spur the moment. The storytelling thing… let me ramble on a moment about the Rockport Sundays series. When the concert halls all got shut down, I figured well I'll do something online and I started this series through a platform called Patreon, If your readers go to TomRush.com, there's a link actually to Rockport Sundays. But what we do is, we record me on video, make video tapes. If it's just me, I'm literally in my kitchen. And I'll tell you a story and I'll sing you a song and that's it. And then they're posted on Sunday, but you can watch them anytime you want for eight weeks. So, anybody signing up today would instantly have eight episodes available. The current episode includes a story about skinny dipping with Janice Joplin. Just a little teaser there [laughs].

[Laughs] Alright, I foresee a massive sign up for people to hear that story.

It’s a good story.

It's a really interesting reaction to the quarantine and not being able to tour. And, not to take it the wrong way, but it seems like something very obvious for say a younger band, but some older artists, I think they may just say, “Ah, I'm not gonna bother with that” … either the platform or the technology or the annoyance of having to do that. I think was a really cool platform to embrace. It’s also probably very much the future as either travel gets more expensive or… hopefully, this [quarantine and shutdown] does not happen again.

Well, I'm keeping up with Rockport Sundays because, number one, it's a lot of fun and number two, it helps to pay the bills. Part of what’s cool, in my mind…I did some research and if you put up an hour-long program, you've lost half your audience at 15 minutes and 99% of them by 45 minutes. So, I figured, I’ll just do bite-sized morsels, a story or maybe two songs. If I've got a guest on the show, we’ll each do a song and that's it. It’s about twelve minutes. People have been loving it. I'm happy that I've been doing it.

Yeah, that sounds perfect. And I imagine it was probably a lot of comfort to folks during the pandemic. I think back to those early days when a lot of musicians were doing live streams or virtual concerts. because they couldn't tour, and we couldn’t can go see them. Those were some really special moments between artists and fans even though we were separated. So, it’s good that we can be together again.

Thank you so much, Tom. Appreciate your time. I hope you're your travels go smoothly. I hope you stay healthy wish you good luck and great show in Cincinnati.

Alright. I'm looking forward to it.

Tom Rush opens for Janis Ian this Thursday, May 19th at Memorial Hall in Cincinnati.

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