In the year before he celebrated his 80th birthday, Tom Rush was heading home for a week to his native Massachusetts when he was diagnosed with COVID. As he started feeling better, he got a surprise call one Friday night urging him to get to the ER.
“We’re concerned you’re going to have an event,” the voice on the other line said.
“What kind of event?” he asked.
“Well the technical term is sudden cardiac death.”
That got Rush’s attention and the next day he was on his way to getting a pacemaker. Rush was relating these recent events on an episode of Living On Music hosted by Steve Houk. Rush could joke that he felt invincible but the last year has forced him to adjust.
It’s been more than fifty years since Joni Mitchell sent him a demo of “The Circle Game” and a note apologizing it wasn’t very good. Rush brushed that aside and named his album after the song, Today Rush is adapting to the digital age with a Patreon program. For $10 a month, Rush will deliver a song every Sunday through his program Rockport Sundays.
“If you want me you can get into the stratosphere,” Rush quipped to Houk from his kitchen in Rockport, Massachusetts.
The stepwise rewards program begins with a single performance by Rush and compatriot Matt Nakoa. It goes up as high as a private concert. When Rush introduced “Mole’s Mean” recently, one viewer said he’d never seen him do it live. “You never know what may be coming up in the next few weeks,” Rush shot back on Twitter.
In many ways the conversation reflected the last year since we shut down. Houk, the Emmy-winning Washington area broadcaster and producer, started Living With Music during the pandemic. Rush was looking at getting back to safe concerts, hoping that the venues he’s frequented over the years would still be there when we make it to the other side. He was getting ready to go to the famed Birchmere, albeit one that is just at 40% capacity. Still 200 seats felt like a start.
Sitting in his kitchen, the gray haired Rush, who helped shape the folk revival in the Sixties and its resurgence a few decades later, seemed forever youthful. Though graying, he still has still his thick mustache and agile smile. Rush is the wry philosopher who looks at life through wit and wisdom. But 5he short-haired folk singer of his youth and the one with the flailing hair of Ladies Love Outlaws persona is a distant mirror.
“Well, I’m a bit reluctant to share this,” he wrote recently on Twitter, “but I’m now officially an antique. I visited three antique stores in Meredith, NH, and two of them had Merrimack County LPs for sale. (I bought the $2 one, but not the $8 — the thing only cost $5 when it was NEW back in ’72!)”
“No Regrets” is among Rush’s most well-known songs and one he first played for Judy Collins. They were sitting in her flat when Rush nervously picked up his guitar and said he had this song. He played it through and Collins asked, “Would you like another cup of tea?”
“No Regrets” which has been widely covered by Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Shirley Bassey and Olivia Newton-John among others. It was the third song he wrote and one that put his children through college. When U2 played at the University of Arizona where Rush’s son was a student, he met the band backstage and introduced himself as the song’s author.
Discovering keyboardist Matt Nakoa gave him a second wind. When he met the younger musician, Rush quickly invited him to play sometime The younger keyboardist wondered what club Rush had in mind. To his surprise, he made his debut at the Boston Symphony, a hall that Rush has adopted and filled over the years.
Rush has said his most recent album Voices is his best so far. When Americana Highways’ Managing Editor Melissa Clarke spoke to him, he was excited to reveal a first in writing all of his songs. “That’s the first time that’s happened,” he pointed out. “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 ten of the twelve.”
Now as we come out of the pandemic and take steps to re-open, Rush and Nakoa are venturing forth gingerly. A look at Rush’s website tomrush.com shows his concert calendar is starting to fill up. In Maryland at the Avalon Theater, Rush and Nakoa have two shows back to back on an upcoming Saturday night. You can buy a patio set for two or four. The next night Rush is booked at an undisclosed location giving him an aura of mystery.
As far as being a role model, Rush downplayed it all on Living On Music.
“I wasn’t trying to usher in anything,” he admitted. “But I wanted to meet girls. Any guitar who tells you different is lying.”
If Rush is an elder statesman, he is one with some stories still to tell. For a future episode of Rockport Sunday’s, he’s toying with the idea of bringing in friends David Bromberg and Jonathan Edwards.
“We’ll sit around and shoot the breeze on how great things used to be.”
A great idea for a Sunday–and all the ones that come after.
For Judee Wherever You Are: If as Tom Rush’s Twitter page says he helped shape the folk revival in the 60’s, Judee Sill was one of the beneficiaries. As the first signing to David Geffen’s Asylum Records label, Sill only made a few albums before passing away. Now Lorenzo Wolff has re-imagined Sill’s songs in a new album Down Where The Valleys Are Low (StorySound Records), an ethereal adventure that contemporizes Sill’s songs with a mirage of colliding electronic instruments and a rotation of accompanying lead vocalists.
Wolff’s arrangements power what the artist calls Sills otherworldly music. When Wolff imagined “Crayon Angels,” he said “I was interested in what it would sound like if Godflesh had been Judee’s backing band instead of Bob Harris.” Against the tension of all of the things going on in Wolff’s arrangement, Grace McLean sings the line “I sit here waiting for God and a train to the Astral plane,” transporting the listener to another dimension. Bartees Strange delivers an exhilarating tour de force on “The Pearl.” And when Osei Ossed sings “There’s a Rugged Road” and Bobby Hawk is paired with Kate Ferber on the closing track “The Phoenix,” they sound like traditional folk songs remade for the 21st century. Surely this is one of the year’s most intriguing projects and one that keeps surfacing new sounds every time you cue it up.
Find more on Tom Rush here: https://www.tomrush.com and tickets to an upcoming show, here: https://tickets.avalontheatre.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=1280 For our earlier interview of Tom, click here: Interview: Tom Rush on New Release “Voices,” Music as Indicator for Social Change, Harvard, and Production Anecdotes