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."