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In No Particular Hurry: An Interview with Tom Rush

By Brian L. Knight

Singer/songwriter Tom Rush first made wave with his 1970 release, The Circle Game, which was a folk album that featured Rush’s versions of songs by Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. The album set a new standard of folk songs as there was a focus on the singer/songwriter and less on traditional folk songs. In subsequent years, Rush recorded may albums such Ladies Love Outlaws and Merrimack County in which Rush touched upon Blues, country, rock and Folk to create his own distinctive musical style. This fall, Columbia Legacy released an anthology of Rush’s career titled No Regrets. The set includes all of his finest songs throughout the years, as well as newly penned tune titled "River Song." Although a longtime resident of New England, Rush has since moved to Wyoming where he is enjoying the serenity of the Grand Tetons. From his home at the gateway to Yellowstone National Park, the Vermont Review spoke to Tom Rush about his early folk days, his 1982 Concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall and an bizarre co-billing with Alice Cooper.

Vermont Review: You are pretty synonymous with the East Coast and especially New England. What are you doing in Wyoming?

Tom Rush: Well, there was this woman, see. The woman, who is now my wife, is involved the effort to bring the wolves back to Yellowstone. So she had to be out here to take care of that and I tagged along. We are in the Grand Teton National Park, just south of Yellowstone.

VR: Do you ever hit the nearby ski slopes?

TR: No, I don’t. There are too many people on crutches around town. I am kind of scared.

VR: How about when you were back in New Hampshire?

TR: Sometimes, I would go to Loon Mountain. Actually, when my kids come out here, I take them to Targhee to ski. The ski area in Jackson Hole is too steep and it is too much of a fashion show. I stick to cross country skiing.

VR: I just read in Powder Magazine that some local drove his snowmobile into Corbets Couloir in Jackson…

TR: Sounds like a bad mistake to me. There is usually a guy with a camera, a commercial photographer who is set up there, who will take a picture of you in mid air and have the processed print ready before you are out of the hospital.

VR: Sounds like bargain. Before your great westward move, where were you in New Hampshire?

TR: I grew up in Concord. My daddy taught at St. Paul’s School.

VR: When you grew up in New Hampshire, was there any Vermont/New Hampshire rivalry?

TR: No, there was never any tension there.

VR: There is a little bit of an ongoing feud…

TR: My wife’s crack the last time I played in Vermont was ‘Vermont is sort of like New Hampshire, but with money. You don’t call them the Green Mountains for nothing.’

VR: That is definitely accurate. There are definitely some pockets of wealth throughout both states. What brought you to Harvard in Cambridge?

TR: Although I grew up at St. Pauls, I was shipped off to another school –Groton School in Groton, Mass. Then I went off to Harvard.

VR: Some people equate boarding to school to being a prison…….

TR: I would have to agree with that. I don’t know why they call them preparatory schools, for I fely quite unprepared when I arrived in Cambridge. I was so used to being told what to do, when to do it, how to do it every step away. I got to Harvard and nobody made you do anything.

VR: When did you first pick up the guitar?

TR: I had a parade rifle- you know one of those wooden rifles with a pipe for a barrel?

VR: Uh-huh

TR: Well, I traded it for a guitar but its strings so high off the neck that you couldn’t play it. Of course, I did not know that and I went through all kinds of agony trying to play the thing. It was interesting that I traded a gun that wouldn’t shoot for a guitar that wouldn’t play. I had an o0lder cousin who taught me to play the Ukulele. I moved up from 4 strings to six strings. That was probably when I was 15.

VR: Was it an easy transition to go from Ukulele to guitar?

TR: Not really. Although the Ukulele has short strings made of nylon which are very easy to press down on the neck. The guitar has longer strings made of steel, which asks quite a bit out of your fingers. You actually had to develop calluses to play the guitar.

VR: You must have some pretty serious calluses by now?

TR: They have kind of faded away. I guess my fingers have given up on callus making.

VR: Do you still have any feeling. I just started to play the guitar and I am wondering if I will ever feel my fingers again?

TR: It comes back.

VR: Getting back to schools. What did you study at Harvard?

TR: English Lit. I was going to be a Marine Biologist. I started off in the Biology Department but they talked me out of that pretty quickly. Introductory Bio course was an atrocity. At the end of my freshman year, I all of sudden had to decide what I wanted for a Major. I couldn’t think of anything else, so I chose English.

VR: Did that help you in your songwriting?

TR: All that reading probably did. The fact that I have an English Lit degree is why I am a musician – couldn’t make a living on an English Lit degree.

VR: Jumping ahead to one of your earlier albums, The Circle Game. Today, this album is given accolades for "ushering in the singer/songwriter era."…….

TR: It is a heavy burden to bear. It’s not my fault (laughter).

VR: What do you think of that album?

TR: I think it was an interesting time. Up until then, I and most of my contemporaries had been focussing on traditional folk material. When it came time to make that album, I couldn’t find any more traditional songs that really interested me. I was desperately looking for material to make an album and along came Joni (Mitchell), Jackson(Browne) and James (Taylor) who had wonderful new songs that sort of had a folksy sensibility to them but were written with a much more literary, lyrical style and a much more sophisticated musical style. But they had a familiar feel to them so I grabbed them up. I wasn’t looking into usher in anything – I was just looking for some songs. Lo and behold, they were delivered to me on a silver platter.

VR: How were they delivered to you?

TR: I met Joni in person in Detroit. I was playing at a club there called the Chessmate. She came in asked the owner if she could do a guest set for my benefit. She was part of the local scene. And she did. She just knocked my socks off. They were fabulous songs. I became friends with her. She sent me tapes subsequent to that with four songs on them. I ended up recording three of them on The Circle Game album. I met James Taylor through my producer at Elektra. He said: ‘there is this kid who is a good songwriter. You should meet him. He is leaving for England in a couple of days.’ We got together in the Elektra offices and they sat us down in this vacant room with no furniture. We sat on the floor and he played me some songs. I ended up recording "Something in the Way She Moves" for The Circle Game. I didn’t actually meet Jackson Browne until quite a bit later but Elektra was doing his publishing. So I had access to some publishing demos of his songs.

VR How would you describe your relationship with the big label during those days. Beneficial or a pain in the ass?

TR: No, it was very beneficial. It was a small label in those days. If you had a problem, you could go see the boss and get it ironed out. It began to grow exponentially at the very end of the 60s and into the 1970s with the success of the Doors. When I was there, it was still a very stylish folk label.

VR: Who is on the cover with you on The Circle Game?

TR: That is a woman named Jill Lumpkin who was my girlfriend at that time. Linda Eastman (of Paul McCartney fame) took the picture.

VR: I just read a quote by the great Big Bill Broonzy: " I guess all songs is folk songs. I never heard no horse sing ‘em." What do you think a folk song is?

TR: (laughter) The term has become so broad as to be almost meaningless now. To me, academically, a folk song is song that has no author. They are traditional songs handed down by ear from generation to generation. The stuff that I do, I do not consider folk music because it doesn’t fit that definition. Nowadays, it is really so broad, it doesn’t mean anything. I was at the Boston Music Hall Awards Ceremony a few years ago. They were inducting me into their Hall of Fame. There is actually no hall. I suspect it is a file drawer. Tracy Chapman was there. The year before, she was given the Female Folk Artist of the Year Award. The year that I was there, she was given the Female Pop Singer of the Year Award. It was the same album. The only difference is that, in the interim, she sold a lot of albums. The implicit statement there is that if you sell more a certain number, you can’t be a folk singer. Personally, I think Paul Simon is a folk singer, Bruce Springsteen is a folk singer, at least part of the time. Jewel is a folk singer.

VR: What kind of singer are you?

TR: I don’t know. That is your job.

VR: That is a lot of pressure.

TR: I really don’t know. I do lots of different things. I don some blues, some folk. I do some contemporary ballads. A teenage kid of some friends was listening to this anthology and came to the song "Kids These Days" and said ‘I did not that Tom Rush’ rapped.

VR: David Bromberg once said "You Have to Suffer To Sing The Blues". Do you agree?

TR: Nah. I think you have to understand what the blues are about. You can’t get there on a free ticket.

VR: You just mentioned a song that I like. I grew up listening to my older sister’s vinyl collection and two of your albums that I enjoyed were Ladies Love Outlaws and Merrimack County. These albums strayed away from the Folk song formula….

TR: The Circle Game was pretty far afield – it had all these lush strings and stuff. By the time I got to Merrimack County, I kind of gotten into folk-rock with electric guitars. I like those albums, but I don’t think I would make any of them today. The album that I am getting around to making early next year probably wouldn’t sound like any of those.

VR: What would it sound like?

TR: It would be more acoustic. I guess the way River Song, the last song on the anthology No Regrets, came out. I like that.

VR: How did that song come about?

TR: That was actually written about when I first moved to Wyoming. I had just gone through a divorce and I landed out here sort of upside down and lived in a log house by the Snake River. I didn’t write the song until several years later. I like the way John Leaventhal produced that and in fact, I am going to work with John some more.

VR: Do you have any regrets?

TR: They are only minor. Nothing major. I am still having a lot of fun doing what I do.

VR: Going back to the album Merrimack County. When that album first came out, did you receive any accusations from the folk circles for selling out? Sort of in the same vein as Bob Dylan going electric for the first time?

TR: I didn’t. To my surprise, I was expecting to get some flack because Dylan sure did. I think my audience was more tolerant.

VR: In 1982, you recorded the live album New Year at the Boston Symphony Hall. After years of small clubs and coffeehouses, this must have been an amazing locale. What was it like for you?

TR: It is a gorgeous place. The way they set it up at Christmas time – they call it Pops Seating- when they take out all the rows of seats and they put in table and chairs. It transforms Symphony Hall into a cabaret. It is very elegant on one hand but it has an informal feel at the same time, which is a delicious combination.

VR: Any other beautiful places stick out in your mind?

TR: Oh there are many. Red Rocks in Colorado is a beautiful spot. Carnegie Hall in New York. Kennedy Center in Washington. Nothing is comparable to Symphony Hall but those are wonderful halls also. I also enjoy playing little clubs.

VR: Have you ever played in a place where you felt that you just didn’t belong?

TR: I once did a co-bill with Alice Cooper. That was a bit odd. It wasn’t as much the place but rather the combination of acts. I do not know who booked it. It was very disorientating.

VR: How did the Alice Cooper fans react to you?

TR: It was hard to tell because it was an outdoor event. During my set, there were all sort of things going on including some guys jumping out of airplanes overhead………in the dark. They were supposed to land inside the chain link fence but there were all of these idiot security guards shining their flashlights at the sky. The parachutist couldn’t see. He was blinded by the flashlights so it drifted gracefully onto the chainlink fence, which he straddled……

VR: ouch……

TR: ……screaming loudly. It was kind of distracting. I was up there trying to do ‘I got the urge for glory…’ It was pretty chaotic.

VR: How often do you write a new song?

TR: Nowhere near often enough. I find that, if I am going to write songs, I have to sit down at eight in the morning and stare at the guitar until noon. If Id do that for a couple of weeks, I will have songs. Finding the time to do it is a problem.

VR: It needs to be a conscious deliberate action…………

TR: It is. I cannot whip off a song while sitting in an airport while waiting for a plane. I know people who can but I am not one of them.

VR: What singer/songwriters of today do you appreciate?

TR: I have been a lot of shows with Janis Ian lately. Janis has been a guest on a bunch of my Club 47 concerts. She is fabulous. She is great to work with. She writes great songs and she is a terrific singer and songwriter.

VR: Could you tell us a little more about the Club 47 concerts?

TR: The shows are named after the coffeehouse in Cambridge where I got my start. It was a place where the generations met. They hired some of the legends in folk to come to town and play. You would go and see the Carter Family one night. The club also hosted the up and comers, the youngsters around the town. You could get up the next night and practice the songs you stole from the Carter Family the night before. It was a great place. With these Club 47 Concerts, I try to present some well-known artists with some new faces. My new faces tend to go one to fame and fortune – Shawn Colvin, Nanci Griffith and Allison Krause. Then I have to hire them back with a lot more money so they can be my headliners.

VR: Outside of the folk/blues/country idiom, what kind of music do you listen to?

TR: I listen to Gospel. I listen to classical. All kinds of stuff. Not a lot of jazz. I have never been properly introduced to jazz.

VR: What do you miss most about the East? Cambridge Pizza? Clam Chowder

TR: Oh, that is a hard one. …………. There is something about New England that you can’t find anywhere else. I do not know what it is.

VR: What do you do when you are not playing music?

TR: I do interviews. I just had a baby three months ago. I spent a lot of time doing baby stuff.

VR: Any fears of Y2K?

TR: No, not really. My wife is a little nervous – she doesn’t want me to play on New Years. I don’t think it will too big a deal, domestically.

Although a man of the Rocky Mountain Range, Tom Rush does make it back to the Appalachians every now and then to play. To keep abreast of his plans, check his web site out at http://tomrush.com.