All in good time
After 35 years, Tom Rush picks up where he left off
CAMBRIDGE - Tom Rush is leaning in close to look at the photographs of folk legends on display at Club Passim. Rush was never much of a Passim denizen, though. He played more at its predecessor, Club 47, back in the early 1960s when he was a clean-cut Harvard student who gigged around town until he became one of the most respected, and eventually emulated, performers on the local folk scene.
"I hope it's OK that I'm right on time for the interview," he says on a cold Saturday morning last month, grinning and taking off his glasses. "I don't want you to think I'm early for everything."
Perhaps he's in on the joke, but it's a slyly funny remark. By now no one expects Tom Rush to be in a hurry. The guy's last studio album came out 35 years ago. "I don't like to rush headlong into these things," he says.
On Tuesday, Rush will pick up where he mysteriously left off so long ago. "What I Know," his first studio release since 1974's "Ladies Love Outlaws," would suggest he's in a reflective mood as he enters his twilight years. He's not.
"I think titling it 'What I Know' gives the impression that it's going to be a summing up of my experiences," says Rush, who turned 68 earlier this month. "Nostalgia isn't what it used to be. I've never had much use for nostalgia."
If anything, the new album is a reminder of the understated qualities that made him a beloved entertainer four decades ago: his warm, conversational singing style; caviar taste in the songwriters he covers; and nuanced guitar playing that proved so popular, he now sells an instructional video about his technique.
Rush is a curious figure in music - revered by musicians and folk fans and all but unknown to younger generations. Even some of his fans seem to confuse his legacy. Just before Rush's performance at the Center for Arts in Natick last month, a woman leaned over to her companion and said, "You remember that song 'The Circle Game'? Tom wrote that." Well, he didn't, but he recorded that Joni Mitchell classic before she did.
In a refreshing break from convention, Rush isn't staging a flashy, high-profile comeback with "What I Know." It doesn't reek of Rick Rubin's celebrated collaborations with Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. Rather, it was produced by Jim Rooney, his old buddy from their days in the Cambridge folk scene in the '60s. Nor is it a bone-dry distillation of Rush's voice and guitar; he's backed by a full band of veteran Nashville sidemen.
"What I Know" is more straightforward than all that: a classic and honest Rush album worthy of a new era of fans who weren't even born when he dropped off the commercial radar in the mid-'70s. More than a few people will need such a refresher, even as his disciples still cite him as a major influence.
"New York had Dylan, but we had Tom Rush," says James Taylor. "He was a direct precursor to me. I took as much from Tom Rush as possible and unwittingly modeled myself on him. Like a lot of people who do what I do, I owe my career to him."
Rush is accustomed to the adulation from his fellow musicians, but he's still a bit befuddled by his undiminished appeal after all these years. Despite his thin discography over the past three decades - he did release a few live albums on his own label, including recordings of his Symphony Hall concerts in the early '80s - he's still a popular draw on the folk circuit. When asked about his show the previous night in Natick, he shakes his head.
"It was terrible," he says. "Completely sold out, enthusiastic audience, lots of applause. Technically and commercially speaking, I shouldn't even have a career at this point. I'm not sure I understand it."
His fans have stuck with him, though, even if they haven't always been able to keep tabs on him. Where was he all those years he wasn't recording music? Aside from raising his two sons and living a quiet life out of the spotlight, Rush is a little light on the details.
"I've been thinking about this new album since 1974," he says. "Well, that's not quite true because I quit showbiz for a while. I retired. It lasted for nine months. I decided I wasn't suited to retirement - I don't play golf. I got tired of driving my tractor around in circles in New Hampshire."
Now Rush's fans stay up-to-date through his website, which sells his albums and allows fans to post questions. That's quite an improvement considering the Internet didn't even exist when Rush released "Ladies Love Outlaws."
Initially famous for his interpretations of blues and folk songs - and later for championing young songwriters such as Taylor, Mitchell, and Jackson Browne - Rush had evolved into a country-rocker by the end of the '60s. His long hair, once so kempt and neat on the album cover of "The Circle Game," made him look like the consummate Southern bad boy. And he still sports the handlebar mustache that became part of his signature look; it's just a lot grayer now.
Rooney, who has known Rush since 1962, had been wanting to make an album with him for nearly 20 years. He still remembers what made Rush such an easy charmer in Harvard Square back then.
"He has a very self-deprecating, slightly shy approach to things," Rooney says from his home in Ireland. "Here he is in his late 60s now, and he seems to have a similar appeal that he always had as a person who's maybe a little bit uncomfortable with himself being out on a stage. But he also has a pretty good idea that he's good at this."
You probably wouldn't pick up on that uneasiness during one of Rush's shows. A storyteller as much as a performer, he has kept an active tour schedule but a low profile in recent years. Rush, who was born in Portsmouth, N.H., had been living in Wyoming and California since 1990 but moved back to his home state this past fall with his wife and their 9-year-old daughter. ("I decided to have my own grandchildren," he quips in concert.)
While he's never been especially renowned for his own compositions (aside from the 1968 hit "No Regrets" and fan favorite "Rockport Sunday"), he wrote six songs on "What I Know." Originally, he had wanted to release it on a major label but the financial picture soon came into focus. "I finally came to realize that trying to get on a major label was like trying to get on the Titanic," he says of the ailing record industry.
He ended up going with Appleseed Recordings, an independent label owned by Jim Musselman, who had wanted to record Rush for more than a year. Musselman had worked with other aging folkies (Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, David Bromberg) whom he calls "wisdom keepers" and had Rush at the top of the list. He suspected that part of Rush's legacy had suffered because of his limited output over the years.
"I think in many ways the music industry is based on what's new and happening right now," Musselman says. "Sometimes there tends to be revisionist history that says if artists aren't on the forefront of recording new material, people won't remember them as well."
It seems everyone has a theory about why Rush wasn't a bigger star able to retain his popularity.
"He's definitely an unsung hero in popular culture, but I think Tom was as central a figure to folk music as Dylan and Woody Guthrie," Taylor says. "But he was part of music right as it was becoming a cash cow in a corporate way. Tom just didn't have the stomach for it. He didn't interface well with that. He wasn't about making money off his music - at least that was always my feeling."
Still, Taylor says what Rush does is timeless - no matter how often he puts out records.
"The thing about Tom Rush is that his style and his presence onstage, it's something he can do until he's 80 years old," Taylor says. "He's a real national treasure."
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.