Tom Rush’s 1968 album The Circle Game helped launch the era of the singer songwriter. Subsequent releases from the New Hampshire native introduced early work from Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan and Jesse Winchester. But Rush made his last studio album (Ladies Love Outlaws) in 1974, and has since stuck to touring and putting out live recordings. His cover of Steve Walters’ “Remember Song” has more than 4 million YouTube hits to date.
In 2009, he mixed an uncanny knack for uncovering talented songwriters with six original tunes for What I Know, Rush’s first new record in 35 years. Rush famously passed on Jack Tempchin’s “Peaceful Easy Feeling” in the early ’70s, a wrong he rectifies this time around with “East of Eden.” The International Folk Alliance recently named What I Know its Folk Album of the Year. Tom Rush spoke with The Hippo from his home in Norwich, Vt.
Why did you wait 35 years to make a new album, at a time when the record business is imploding?
I’ve been thinking about making a new album for virtually the entire 35 years, and made some false starts … I didn’t want to put it out on my own label which I had done with some live albums … Jim Musselman of Appleseed Records called me up and said, “Hey, let’s make an album.” I checked with some of my friends that were on the label. [Tom] Paxton, [David] Bromberg and [Pete] Seeger are all on there and they all thought the world of this guy. So I said, “Well, OK, let’s do it!” I’m very, very glad I did.
Good company has been a constant thread in your story. How did you come to stumble upon work by Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and James Taylor?
I had been doing mostly traditional folk, as were most of my contemporaries. I’d kind of run out of songs that interested me. First of all, I was a generalist and my contemporaries were specialists. They would only do Woody Guthrie songs, or only bluegrass, or blues. I would kind of mix it up, pick a song from here, a song from there, but in any case, I’d run out of songs. [I decided] I’ll go back and mine the sound of music that got me interested, which is the Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and Everly Brothers era. After that, I didn’t know what to do, and as I was pondering it, I met Joni, Jackson and James through different conduits … I recorded an album centered around their work, a couple songs of my own and a couple of others thrown in and that was The Circle Game [and] it was well received at the time. But I think in retrospect, it has gotten more attention than it did originally because it became clear later on that it was the beginning of something significant.
It also included “No Regrets.” Did you write that after hearing these great songs?
I can’t remember exactly. My recollection is that it already existed. I’d written it a couple of years earlier and hadn’t been able to figure out what to do with it because it wasn’t a traditional folk song and it didn’t really fit in with the kind of stuff I was doing at the time. I tried it out on stage a couple of times and nobody seemed to think that much of it, so I sort of put it aside and then got it back out again when this project was coming together.
What do you think of the way Americana has become a melting pot for a lot of different musical styles?
Well, I think the whole music scene is fascinating right now. One of the things that the Internet has done [is] made a thousand, a million niches possible. Categories have become less and less meaningful as we get more and more categories that are smaller. I think the Americana thing for me is great, because I fit comfortably into that. I’m not even sure exactly what it is. But Americana radio plays my music, so God bless ’em.
In 1970, you rode across Canada on the Festival Express with the royalty of rock and roll — Joplin, Garcia. What was that like?
They sure didn’t act like royalty! [laughs] It was the best party I’ve even been to, far and away. I mean it was an astounding experience. The promoter had two cars on the train set up with amplifiers and some keyboards and drum kits, and the music just never stopped. The train kept rolling and when you couldn’t take any more, you’d go lie down for a couple of hours; you’d come back and the train was still rolling, and the party still going. It got to the point where we really regarded the stadium shows as unwelcome intrusions into the party. It got to be kind of all-consuming.
There were protests in different cities by people who wanted free shows.
I think those were very much a minority, but a very vocal minority, and of course the ones that got all the press … the Toronto show was actually very peaceful, but there were a bunch of kids climbing on a chain link fence and the photographers got them and that’s what was on the front page of the paper the next day and they made it look like there was a huge amount of turmoil and unrest, and in fact, there was not. But the media, needing a story, turned a couple of kids climbing a fence into a riot and that sort of set the tone for the rest of the tour. ... But the music was great; the party was great.
The new album has a couple of songs with a political essence, but you’re not an overtly political songwriter —
No, and I’ve said over and over that I never got involved in the social protest side of things back in the ’60s and I didn’t. I did benefit concerts, I supported causes, but I didn’t take it on stage. I didn’t sing about it. Other than doing a couple of Woody Guthrie songs way back when, this is the closest I’ve gotten to social commentary in my entire career.
“East of Eden” is a subtle but very powerful statement about immigration policy.
It’s a great song [that] puts a human face on the immigration question, the way that Guthrie’s “Deportees” did, giving names to the people. Tempchin doesn’t give names to them, but he makes you feel what these people are feeling.
There’s song that describes Casey Jones as a historical figure. Where did you get that one?
I don’t remember learning it, so it must go way back. One of the fun things with traditional songs is that they all exist in a hundred or thousand different variants, different verses and different lines to a verse. You get to pick and choose which ones you’re going to use. I guess if you grow up in a little town in Appalachia, you don’t get to choose, you sing it the way your grandmother taught it to you. But if you’re in Cambridge and have access to a lot of different versions, you can decide to use this verse instead of that verse. So I put together this collection of Casey Jones verses and then I read [Neil] Lomax’s little page and a half history of the train wreck and realized that this is a real guy. The ballad of Jimmie Jones, which preexisted Casey, was just cannibalized for all these verses about womanizing and drinking … the Jones family was very hurt by this stuff because it was defamation of character, he was apparently a man of good character. I picked verses that didn’t have any of that stuff even though some of them are pretty good.
You recently became an Internet sensation with your video of “Remember Song”
The Internet is a terrible thing if you are one of those few people still selling lots and lots of CDs, but if you’re not — and I’m not — then it’s a great thing, because it allows you to connect with your audience. Until very recently you didn’t exist if you didn’t have a record deal. If you weren’t on a record label then you weren’t on the radio, you weren’t in the stores. You were invisible. Now, anybody with a laptop can set up and record stuff, can set up a Web site and put something on YouTube. If it’s good, people will find it. [“Remember Song”] has been very good for me. There’s not a dime in it, but I think it has reminded a lot of lapsed Tom Rush fans, [which] might encourage them to come to a show … I have a lot of people who come up to me and say, “I last saw you in ’68” or ’75 or ’82. My stock response is, “I must have really sucked if you haven’t come back in a couple of decades.” But there are a lot of people out there who haven’t been to a Tom Rush show in a long time, so I’m trying to rectify that.
Where: Dana Center, Saint Anselm College, 100 Saint Anselm Drive in Manchester
When: Friday, April 9, at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $6 (Saint Anselm students) to $29.50 (adult reserved)