Deckle edge

Tom Rush
by Chris Flisher © 1993 /
(first published October 1993 Worcester Phoenix)

Tom Rush
Twenty-five years ago folk singer and sometimes-songwriter Tom Rush released The Circle Game. The album, which featured only two songs by its author, was hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as "pivotal." The album's importance was marked not so much by the inclusion of Rush's own signature song, "No Regrets," but by the work of three then relatively unknown songwriters— Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Jackson Browne. The work of these songwriters was exposed to the world for the first time and the rest is, as they say, history.

For someone who is considered to be a contributing force in the evolution of contemporary folk music, Tom Rush, is fairly cavalier about his role. "I wasn't trying to usher in an era or expose anyone to be honest," said Rush in a recent interview from his new home in Wyoming. "Part of what I was good at was picking great songs." While his contemporaries—Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton—fanned the flames of social change with their politically driven songs, Rush took a different stance, shunning politics for songs with universal, human themes. "I think that most social commentary songs written in the last hundred years are generally bad. Politics and poetry don't mix," He is quick to add, however, "The exception is Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan. They are special because they wrote songs about the people affected by the politics. I like songs that move me emotionally, songs about people. Issues don't tend to do that for me."

Tom Rush earned his reputation more as an interpreter than as a songwriter, finding songs that conveyed the human condition through poetic verses and tugging melodies. His deep resonant delivery is tinged with just the right amount of roughness, lending an emotional, soulful edge to his renditions. Although he has written some folk standards, most notably "No Regrets," he remains unambitious when it comes to creating his own work. "I am basically lazy," he confides. "If someone writes a great song and it moves me, then I do it. If I happen to write a song and it does the same thing, then fine. It just doesn't usually work that way. Song writing doesn't come easy to me. It requires a lot of time, years sometimes. I do feel guilty sometimes about not writing, but I try not to let it bother me."

Although he helped define the stereotypical image of the folk singer—wielding acoustic guitars and harmonicas, singing songs from street corners and coffeehouse stages—Rush believes much of his success is due to timing and good fortune. "In those days it was incredibly easy compared to now. I could walk into any radio station and talk with the DJ. Nowadays you can't get near a radio station if you haven't got a name and an impressive catalog. I remember being miffed at the time because I was the only guitar player inside Route 128 that didn't have a record contract. It is just not that easy today."

In an effort to thwart the big-label music business as his career and folk music began to fade in the '70s, Rush developed his own plan for marketing and delivering music to people. "Thirty years ago, people owned record companies because they loved music, not because they were market analysts. My plan was to break away and become independent," recalled Rush. Part of that plan was Maple Hill Productions, an organization that discovered, recorded, produced, and programmed rising artists. Relying on his ear for talent, Rush and his company went on to discover and launch the careers of many current folk luminaries including Patty Larkin, Christine Lavin, and Bill Morrissey. "I knew that people who loved Dylan and Baez, were still out there. They just stopped buying music because the big record companies didn't know what people wanted to hear—they still don't," he quips.

The other part of his plan was establishing HEAR Music, a catalog service specializing in music alternatives, namely, folk, blues, jazz, Cajun, and international music. The response has been positive and the mail-order only company has just opened its first retail outlet with plans for more in the future. The ultimate goal of both Maple Hill and HEAR is to bring alternative music to appreciative audiences, circumventing the big-label music business and providing longevity to a valuable body of music. "I would rather see this music have a long term presence in the world the way classical or jazz does," added Rush "We [folk musicians] should not be the poor cousins of rock."

Keeping with his first real interest, Rush is recording a new studio album, the first since Ladies Love Outlaws released in 1974. Working with Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (Steely Dan), Reggie Hamilton (Prince), and Nicky Hopkins (Rolling Stones), Rush has collected a batch of new songs, that uncharacteristically, deal with social issues. He explains, "Some of the new songs are political, ironically I suppose. There is one about AIDS and another titled "All A Man Can Do" that has to do with the return home of a Vietnam veteran. They are songs that, again, deal with people, glimpses of peoples lives. They give me goose bumps."

Another project is a tour to support Rhino Records' Troubadours of The Folk Era,, a series of concerts that bring together the major figures of the era in retrospective performances held around the country.

Although Rush's voice is his real trademark, his knack for discovering new talent has been mutually beneficial to his career and several emerging artists. It is a course he took while waiting to figure out life. At 52 he remains philosophical. "I have been extremely lucky," he admits. "I pursued something that I enjoyed doing. It was the path of least resistance. I thought 'Well this is great, I'll sing until I figure out what I want to do' and yet 30 years later my mother still wants to know when I'm going to get a real job."

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge