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EDITOR’S NOTE: Singer-songwriter Tom Rush, 79, has been an icon on the folk music scene for nearly 60 years. In mid-March, he gave a telephone interview with AARP Virginia volunteer reporter Larry Lipman. Two weeks later, he announced to his fans that he had tested positive for the covid-19 virus. This story was written prior to that announcement.
Tom Rush chuckled as he recounted that when a stagehand would holler, “Tom wants the Naked Lady in his dressing room,” heads would turn.
The Naked Lady is the name given to one of singer-songwriter Tom Rush’s guitars because it has the image of a naked woman with a snake inlaid on the neck. It’s a recreation of a guitar Rush owned decades ago that was destroyed in a house fire.
Until the coronavirus outbreak, Rush, 79, showed no signs of slowing down. In some ways, his pace was actually increasing. He had been writing songs at a faster clip than ever before, had a hectic schedule of concerts, and is working on three books and numerous mini-sculptures. Acknowledging the likelihood that shows would be canceled because of the virus, he said he planned to devote even more time to writing songs and books.
After nearly 60 years of performing, Rush—who is often credited with being one of the artists who helped shaped the folk music revival of the 1960s—is variously referred to as a folk singer, blues singer, country singer, standup comedian, singer-song writer, legend, icon, legendary icon and iconic legend. He joked that the later are ways of saying he’s ”really old.” But that’s not the way he thinks of himself.
“In my head, I’m still 35 and that’s the perspective I write from,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Massachusetts.
Rush broke into the music scene in 1961 when he began performing in coffeehouses including the famous Club 47 in Cambridge, Mass., while attending Harvard University. His first album, a collection of songs recorded live, entitled Tom Rush at The Unicorn, was released in 1962. He has since released 20 more albums either as a solo artist or with other singers.
Only a few of his songs refer to aging. “Remember Song,” about the problems of remembering things like where you put the keys, has become a YouTube viral hit. “I didn’t write it, but I don’t remember who did,” he joked before noting that it was written by Steven Walters. Another song, “Going Down to Nashville” – written by Rush and featured on his album “Voices” -- is about an aging wanderer recalling his life and the woman he left behind.
“Voices,” released in 2018, was Rush’s first studio album in 35 years. He said he’s written enough new songs to put out another album, but he wants to write several more just to be sure he has quality material. He noted that often the song you think will be a hit turns out to be a dud and the song that was thrown in at the last-minute turns into a hit.
While his 1968 “No Regrets” is probably the song Rush is most identified with – it has been covered by numerous artists including Emmylou Harris, the Walker Brothers and Shirley Bassey—Rush said “Voices,” the title song of the album, is among his best work. “It’s quiet and contemplative.”
“Of course, the best song is the one that I haven’t written yet. I keep trying to get it right. Years of practice.”
On stage, wearing a white suit and with his tousled white hair and white walrus mustache, Rush looks much like Mark Twain. He takes it as a compliment when he is compared to the legendary author and story teller. Rush sends out an occasional newsletter, and often quotes Twain at the end. “He was a monster talent and I’m very fond of his work.”
Like Twain, Rush tells stories—in his songs and between songs.
“I regard the songs as stories and sing them accordingly. But I also tell stories,” he said. “I learned early on that if the audience likes you, they’re much more apt to like the song you’re about to do. So, by way of trying to engage them, I would tell a story. It’s now to the point where I get requests for the stories. It blows my mind.
“That’s the fun part. It’s a dialogue, although it’s kind of one-sided,” he said. “I’m reacting to the audience and they’re reacting to me and it’s fun.”
Although he’s often described as a folk singer, Rush makes the distinction between folk music—which traces it roots back decades or centuries and is often of unknown origin--and singer-songwriters such as himself.
Rolling Stone magazine once referred to him as ushering in the singer-songwriter era because he featured the then unknown talents of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Jackson Browne on one of his early albums.
“I wasn’t really trying to discover anybody, or usher in anything, I wanted to meet girls,” he said. “Any guitar player that tells you differently is lying.”
Rush noted that today’s music scene is so fractured online that there is not a “center.” Today’s megahits sell a bare fraction of what were sold in earlier decades.
One form of music that Rush said he doesn’t get is rap. After a trip from Maine to Washington, D.C. driving his daughter to college, Rush joked that “it occurred to me after about five hours that in rap music there is hardly ever a banjo solo.”
Although the tour that was suspended in March was billed as the “Birthday Bash and First Annual Farewell Tour,” Rush said does not plan to stop performing. “As long as I can do it well, I would like to keep doing it.” He said he never considered himself having a great voice, and while he can’t hit the high notes as well, his low notes are richer.
“I love performing,” he said, although he’s admits that traveling can become grueling. “My crowds, god bless ‘em, are still showing up in force and having a good time. So, we have a good time together and I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening.”
If he does stop performing, he plans to spend more time writing a novel, an advice book about performing, and an autobiography full of fun stories from the road. Such stories would be like the time Rush gave a ride to Steve Goodman--who wrote the song “City of New Orleans”--who was unsuccessfully trying to hail a cab while holding an enormous stuffed rabbit toy on a snowy night. Cabs would slow down, see a man holding a stuffed rabbit that was larger than he was, and speed away.
Rush also hopes to devote more time to his sculptures in stone and guitar strings.
Oh, and if you want a Naked Lady handmade by Canadian guitar manufacturers MacKenzie & Marr, it can be ordered from his website tomrush.com.