Interview: Tom Rush on New Release “Voices,” Music as Indicator for Social Change, Harvard, and Production Anecdotes


Tom Rush has had an impressive career, having worked over several decades at the intersections of folk, blues and country music, and he was once acknowledged by Rolling Stone to have founded the age of the folk singer-songwriter.  His new release Voices (Appleseed) is available today, and Americana Highways was afforded a chance to talk to him about that and several other topics and philosophies.

When we talked, it was just after the weekend that student anti-gun violence protests had taken place nationally, so I asked him: “What’s the relationship between music and movements for social change?” “It’s funny,” he responded. “I gave lectures at Harvard years ago about how popular music is a leading indicator of social change. And I think back then that was true, but I think it’s a little puzzling that nothing has emerged so far currently. But I was at that March on Washington on Saturday. It was very, very moving. I was in tears half the time. It occurs to me that just maybe out of this scene with the dedication, with the passion and energy, that maybe another music scene may well evolve, and we may get another person who fills the role of Bob Dylan or Woodie Guthrie. This is the sort of thing where the music kicks in. It’s not a leading indicator in this case, but it could still be a driving force in a movement.”

“To me,” I said, “your music tends to be funny and uplifting. So would you say music is a motivator as opposed to a catharsis?”   “Well I think there are two kinds of relevant music. There’s the kind of music that serves to solidify the people that are already moved. For example, in the style of “We Shall Overcome,” the way that song serves as a unifying force for people who are already of the same mind.  But it’s very difficult — a lot of the issues we are facing as a nation right now are emotional issues, more so than logical ones. The people with guns are really upset about their guns, I think it’s because they are afraid.   It’s hard to change somebody’s mind about being afraid with a logical argument.“

“This is where Dylan and Guthrie made a difference, I think, because they took a broad issue down to an individual person or a small group of people. One of Guthrie’s most powerful songs is called “the Deportees” (“the Plane Wreck at Los Gatos”). A plane went down in 1948 that was deporting 28 Mexicans taking them back to Mexico.   The news reports said the pilot and co-pilot’s names when they reported they were killed and then just added vaguely “along with a bunch of deportees.” And Guthrie gave them names: “Goodbye to you Juan, goodbye Rosalita.” That was very powerful and that kind of thing can make people stop and think: “Hey, these are actually people, not just deportees, or refugees, or illegal aliens. These are human beings.” That kind of song can help to steer the conversation and maybe help change peoples’ minds.”

You were also a student at Harvard and then you lectured at there. How did that come about?  “One of my favorite professors asked me if I would come back and do a lecture as part of one of his courses, I did that 3 or 4 years in a row. I asked him what did he want me to lecture about? The name of the course was Civilization.   I thought that was a little broad. He said: “The lecture before yours will be my talk about the Serbo-Croation oral epic, and the lecture following yours will be a Tom Mix movie.” My job was to tie it all together. (laughs) I came up with the notion that popular music could be an indicator of social change – the idea that you’d hear about something via music before you’d read about it in the news.”

“But as I said, for whatever reason it hasn’t emerged currently. I was talking to Tom Paxton who was one of the major social commentary songwriters of my generation, about how puzzling it is that so far nothing has emerged.   A generation has been so passive until now. But it’s so exciting to me that they are coming together now, and are so focused, and are articulate, and know what they want. Kids are saying “no, it’s not going to be this way.””

“I was a student and big fan of folk music in the sense of traditional songs nobody wrote that were handed down from generation to generation. “Handed down by ear” is a phrase that’s sometimes used, and this took place usually among an illiterate population. Back in those days when a lot of the population was illiterate—hundreds of years ago – the music was the way you could tell what people were thinking — people on the streets, not the aristocrats of course.”

“You spent so much time in the Cambridge and Boston area, what is your relationship with Club 47 and Club Passim there?” “Club 47 oddly enough is unrelated to Club Passim. And although I now own the name “Club 47,” that club that hosted so much great music closed and it was a Dukakis campaign headquarters for some time. Then Club Passim opened in the same spot, and they were, and are, basically hiring the same kind of music with the same sort of mission, although the evolution is genetically unrelated, I’m a big fan of Club Passim.”

“I’ve used the name Club 47 to put together an intermittent series of concerts involving established artists and newcomers. In my mind that’s what the Club 47 was so good at. They would host the local kids just starting out but they would also bring in the older generation; the legends. And you got to go sit at the feet of the Carter family or Flatt & Scruggs or Sleepy John Estes. And learn … and steal their chords. (laughs) The concerts are occasional things.”

What’s your songwriting process? “Every song’s different. Sometimes they start as a little musical phrase, and then I find words to go to them. To me it feels like the songs already exist and I’m just trying to coax them into this universe. It’s like listening to a faraway radio station that fades in and out. Each time it fades in I get a little bit more of the song.”

What’s unique about songwriting as opposed to other art forms? “With songs the performing aspect is immediate. The musician plays it, the audience hears it, and it’s done. You don’t have to wait for the newspaper to come out to figure out whether they liked it or not.   The songs also evolve over time, I’m already making changes in the songs that are on the album when I do them onstage. They’re already drifting a little bit. “

Tom Rush’s new album is called Voices, named after a song toward the end of the album. So I asked him the significance of the title. “I wanted to name the album after one of the songs, which I think isn’t obligatory anymore but I’m an old fashioned guy. And I didn’t want to name it “If I Ever Get Back to Hackensack It’ll Be All Right.” (laughs) I thought Voices was a good overview of the album. I’m sure there are many fine people who live in Hackensack, but that song is about a gig that went very very badly a long time ago and scarred my young psyche.”

“Other musicians on the album are a group of players who call themselves Rooney’s Irregulars in Nashville, Jim Rooney is the producer. He is an old friend of mine, he used to manage the Club 47 back in the day and now he is a big producer in Nashville. He has these players who are some of the best musicians in the world.”

Sam Bush came and played mandolin and fiddle, Kathy Mattea was singing backup vocals along with these session people who are really fabulous players even though they don’t have solo careers. Al Perkins played pedal steel. I also took a young fellow named Matt Nakoa who’s been playing piano and keyboards onstage with me for the past couple years, I took him down there. He blew them away, you can hear his keyboard parts weaving through all the songs. They were very impressed with him.”

Rush had funny stories to share about joking around during the production process: “At one point the engineer, David Ferguson, and Jim said to Matt: “Go on in there and do a big sweep up on the organ and then a sweep down,” so he went in and did it and they said: “Okay, we got it,” and Matt said “Wait. I don’t know what I just did. I can do it better.“ David Ferguson comes in on the intercom and says “Matt, we’re not making music for musicians.” (laughs) Words to live by.”

“The engineer also told me “Tom, autotune don’t work on your voice.” He did most of Johnny Cash’s stuff. For fun he played me some of Johnny Cash’s vocals that he had run through autotune and it was grotesque, because Johnny didn’t hit notes dead on. I’m narrating some of the time, so I slide into notes, I don’t sing properly either. So I took it as a compliment.”

“The other interesting aspect to this project is that I wrote all the songs, that’s the first time that’s happened. The muse has been coming around. I still want to be a folk singer and sing traditional songs so I’m singing two of those, but I wrote 10 of the twelve!”

Get your copy of Voices here! Also, look at the calendar and make your plan to go see him live!

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