Tom Rush, an iconic singer, songwriter and guitarist who helped shape the great folk revival in the '60s and its resurgence in the '80s and the '90s, is still very much a spirited, spirit-lifting entertainer, musician and raconteur whose ebullient talents have proven to be timeless.
While majoring in English literature at Harvard, Rush, who's now 73, honed his folk and blues skills as an up-and-coming singer/songwriter in the '60s on the seminal folk scene then feverishly brewing in coffee houses in Cambridge, Mass.
Rush's genial stage presence, droll wit, mellow baritone musings and self-taught, American-roots guitar chops began lighting up bandstands early on at the hippest bohemian folk clubs of Cambridge, Boston, Philadelphia, Georgetown and Greenwich Village scene. Later his triumphs at small now fabled clubs like Club 47 and The Unicorn expanded into festivals, arenas and such venerable venues as Symphony Hall in Boston (a favorite Rush stomping ground), Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C.
Besides his discography of canonized albums, the New Hampshire native has composed hit songs ranging from his moving signature number, "No Regrets," to his amusing, "Remember Song," an unforgettable ode to forgetfulness. As a writer, performer, recording artist and concert-producer, he was the first to record songs by such then unknown songwriters as Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Jackson Browne. Early on, he championed such future stars as Nanci Griffith and Shawn Colvin, and has influenced artists ranging from Garth Brooks to Emmylou Harris.
His celebrated solo shows, which are both a concert and a theatrical tour de force, not surprisingly draw Baby Boomers, who are nostalgically and forever hooked on evergreens from his recordings. His personable performances also attract younger fans in their 20s and 30s.
Another force that seems to bridge all generation gaps, is Rush's rare, some say, uncanny ability to bond with his audiences on a deep level, establishing the kind of rapport that seems to make listeners connect with his music and stage persona.
Returning to Connecticut where he has often performed over the years, Rush presents his signature solo show at 8 p.m. Friday, July 18, at The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook, and at 6:30 p.m. Monday, July 21, in the free, outdoor series, "Music on the River," on the lawn of the Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam.
Recently, Rush chatted by phone with The Courant about everything from his undying loathing of retirement to his lifelong love of such true American idols as Bo Diddley and Mark Twain.
Q: You've been a shaker-and-doer troubadour on the music scene for more than half-a-century. What do you consider to be your legacy?
A: I try not to look back, and just stay focused on the present moment or what's coming next. I don't know about legacy. I think my legacy is that I've helped make people happy with music.
Q: How did you get immersed in the Cambridge folk scene, working in clubs by night and going to Harvard by day?
A: I was already deeply in love with folk music when I arrived in Cambridge. I'd heard Josh White (the legendary singer/songwriter/guitarist, actor and civil rights activist) on a recording on the way across the country on a family outing. I was already playing guitar at that point…late 1950s rock, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers. It was an astounding time because there were so many hugely talented people who were nothing like one another. Now it's all a cookie-cutter thing. If somebody has a big hit, then all the labels want one just like that.
When I got to Cambridge there were all these coffee houses, all these guitar players and all kinds of music energy going on. I just got swept up into it.
Q: How did that fit in with majoring in English literature at Harvard?
A: Not easily. I took all the courses I could possibly find involving anything to do with traditional music, the folk tradition, the oral tradition. I took an Anglo-Saxon course. I took a course in epic ballads and anything that had to do with folk music, spanning a lot of different departments. But the nightlife and club scene was really a side trip. Although my parents would probably tell you that the academics were the side trip.
Q: You're a writer, a lyricist and a blogger. Did majoring in English at Harvard help your writing?
A: It was actually the opposite. Mind you, I was an English lit major and the professors took the English part of that quite seriously. If you weren't a writer from England, you didn't count. So we got a lot of the old guys…Shelley, Shakespeare and Byron. And guys like that get you very discouraged about your writing…they were so good.
Q: You're often credited with ushering in the singer/songwriter era because your album "The Circle Game" featured songs by three future great songwriters Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Jackson Browne. What do you think of that accolade?
A: I think the fact that all three of them basically debuted on the same LP got people's attention. People heard this and said, 'What's going on? There's a whole different kind of a song coming out of the speakers. Who are these people?'
But if I kicked-off anything, it was simply because I was desperate for material. I wasn't trying to kick anything off or discover anybody. I was just trying to find good songs so I could make a record.
Q: How would you categorize your style?
A: I'm such a mongrel musically that I don't fit into a slot. I learned this early on when my first album came out, and I went to the Harvard Coop, a big record store in Harvard Square, and found that my LP was filed under folk. I went to the manager and said, 'I do some folk, but I don't really consider myself a folk singer.' So, he said, "Okay," and put me in the blues bin. I said, 'Hold on. There's some blues on the LP, but I'm not really a blues singer.' So he moved the album about four more times to four more categories. Finally, he said to me, 'Okay, kid, this is it!' as he filed the album under miscellaneous.
I learned my lesson not to argue about labels.
Q: What are you going to present in your two solo shows in Connecticut?
A: Well, I've given up on the elephants and the smoke machines. So it will just be me and my four guitars. I will definitely do some old favorites I'm known for and some new songs I've recently written, plus tunes by Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and others. Working solo, I have the latitude to ramble on, to tell stories, which usually have something to do with the song I'm about to play, but not always.
Q: Tell me about your interest in storytelling.
A: At the bottom of it all, I think I am a storyteller. All the songs I do tell some kind of a story. I realized very early on that if you can engage the audience with stories… get their attention and they like you, they will like what you play.
Q: Are establishing rapport and being entertaining key elements in your art?
A: Anybody who gets on stage is an entertainer. Vladimir Horowitz used to be a neighbor of ours in Connecticut, and I got him to admit that, yes, the way he'd flick his coattails out when he'd sit down at the piano, the way he'd adjust the seat or the pause that he'd take before starting to play…it's all showbiz. It's all for drama. So even the premier concert pianist in the world felt that he was putting on a show.
Q: In countless reviews in recent years, you've been invariably described as looking like Mark Twain because of your white hair and bushy mustache. Do you get tired of that comparison?
A: Wearing a white suit, which I do sometimes, probably adds to that Twain-effect. Twain is one of my idols. So I'm certainly not offended by any stretch.
Q: Where does your sense of humor come from? It's observational humor and flows spontaneously from whatever subject just happens to pop up.
A: I don't know. I think I was born with an appreciation of the absurd. I do love great American humorists like James Thurber, Robert Benchley and others. I'm a big fan of the writer Bill Bryson who has a very amusing way of explaining things that need to be explained.
Q: Are you ever going to retire and rest on your laurels?
A: I would if I had any laurels to rest on. I'm not good at retirement. I tried it once, and it drove me nuts. My retirement was a disaster.
TOM RUSH: Tickets for Tom Rush's July 18 performance at The Kate: $45/$48 at www.katharinehepburntheater.org and 877-503-1286. The rain location for "Music on the River" is the Hale-Ray High School Auditorium, 15 School Road., Moodus. Rain location status: 860-873-5058.