Tom Rush is a gifted musician and performer whose impact on the American music scene has been profound. His musical career began in the early ’60s playing the Boston-area clubs while a Harvard student, demonstrating an uncanny knack for finding wonderful songs, and writing his own. His distinctive guitar style, wry humor and warm, expressive voice have made him both a legend and a lure to audiences around the world.
In 2009, Tom went to Nashville to record his first studio album in 35 years, “What I Know.” In 2012, he returned to Symphony Hall, Boston, for Tom Rush: 50 Years of Music. Now, in 2014, Tom Rush embarks on a new tour, and will be stopping by Atlanta later this week. Alex May spoke with the artist about his long career in music, and the always changing nature of the music industry.
To someone who hasn’t heard your songs before, how would you describe your overall writing style?
I don’t know how to describe it. I do a lot of different stuff. I go from blues, to country, folk, silly stuff, to rock n roll.
You’ve written several songs that have been performed by artists from many different genres. Are there certain elements of your songwriting that you think allow for this versatility?
I actually think that any good song really ought to be done a lot of different ways, just to exercise the possibilities. I don’t know that it’s anything unique to me, but I do think that a basic good song, a good sound base, good architecture allows for a lot of different treatments.
You’ve toured all over the United States, are there any specific areas that stick out in your memory as favorites?
The northeast is kind of my home base, but this time of year Florida and Georgia look awfully good.
You’ve been a part of the folk music scene as it’s gone through several changes. What are some important factors in adapting to a changing industry?
Obviously the big tectonic change has been the advent of the internet, and the fact that musicians can now interface with their fans directly. At tomrush.com I keep an email list and I send out newsletters that help me keep in touch with people who are interested.You don’t need a record label. It wasn’t very long ago that if you didn’t have a record deal, you did not exist. You were totally invisible. If you weren’t on a record label, you weren’t on the radio, you weren’t in the newspapers or magazines, nobody knew you were there, and that’s no longer the case. The record industry has lost its stranglehold on the artistic process.
Your album “What I Know” was recorded after a 35 year break from recording studio albums. How different was the process going back into the studio with new equipment?
It was actually a treat. I put out some live albums and I was certainly active on the concert circuit, but I hadn’t been in a full bore recording studio. Actually, Sony did a retrospective on me and we recorded some new stuff 5 years prior, but the producer loved the old gear, and we went into a studio in New York that had nothing but analog equipment in it. This studio was exactly the same as the studios I had been in back in the 60s and 70s. Getting out of Nashville and working on What I Know, it was all digital. For me, the treat part of it was that it’s so quick. Working with tape, in order to change a note, you had to rewind the tape to find that one exact spot. You had to start playing along and the engineer would have to hit the record button and then the unrecord button at exactly the right moment and hope that you got it. Now you can just take a note from somewhere else and fly it into the right spot, paste it in, and it’s done. It was a much quicker process.
The mixing was much quicker. The mixing used to be a real torturous ordeal. I would actually leave the building for twelve hours until they had the song ready to listen to. Now, you basically set up a mix when you’re done recording the tracks. It’s a lot quicker and a lot more fun.
It’s been said that relying too heavily on digital equipment can impact the recording process if you’re not careful. Did the use of digital equipment have a noticeable impact on your recording process?
I think that it can be a danger. There are digital tricks, you don’t really have to do your job properly. The recording engineer in Nashville said to me, “Tom, Autotune don’t work on your voice” and he meant that in the nicest way. Basically my signing style is somewhere in between narration. You try to Autotune it and it just sounds grotesque. That’s one piece of digital trickery that doesn’t work on me.
Your newest release “50 Years of Music” highlights your long career in performing music. What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned over the years?
There’s a lot that I’m still learning. Basically, I really appreciate the value of live performance. I get kids asking me “what should I do?” and I tell them to play in front of a live audience as much as you possibly can because you’ll learn very quickly if the song is wrong, or if the third verse doesn’t work. You’ll know right on the spot if you’re paying attention to what the audience is telling you.
What can concertgoers expect when they go to see a live performance?
They’re all different. I do try to do some of the old favorites. I have some colleagues who really don’t want to do the old stuff, they just want to do the new stuff. I don’t think that’s fair, because the audience comes to hear the stuff they’re familiar with. At the same time, if I did nothing but the old stuff, I would be institutionalized by now.
I’ve been working mainly solo these days, which I find delightful. I get to ramble around and do what song I want and not have to worry about if the band knows it. I also probably tell too many stories, but the stories have become a part of the show. I actually get requests for stories, which is kind of cool.
Thanks to Tom Rush for taking the time to talk with us, and make sure to catch his live show, coming up this Thursday at Eddie’s Attic!