Folk legend Tom Rush is a You Tube star
By Barry Gilbert
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Tom Rush was at the vanguard of the '60s folk boom, helped usher in
the singer-songwriter era in the '70s and hasn't recorded a studio
album in 30 years. And now ... he's a YouTube star?
Yes, a clip of Rush performing "Remember?" a funny tune about aging
and forgetfulness is up to 3.5 million plays.
"You know, I was really impressed," Rush said last week from his home
in Moose, Wyo. "I was watching it every day when it was up around
11/2 million, then I realized there was a 10-second clip of an
elephant burping that was gaining on me. And the elephant actually
pulled ahead for a while. And I was very despondent. But then I
kicked the elephant's butt."
Who's watching it?
"It has been proposed that it's just one guy," Rush says.
And he's really obsessed with the song?
"No, he just can't remember that he's seen it," Rush chuckles. "You
know, I think it's interesting, because clearly this is not the kids.
It's boomers, who are supposed to be inept when it comes to cyberspace."
Rush, who turned 67 last week, remains at the top of a career that
began in the coffeehouses of Boston and Cambridge while he was a
Harvard student. He has two grown sons and an 8-year-old daughter,
Siena, of whom he jokes: "I've decided to have my own grandchildren,
cut out the middlemen."
And this music veteran, blessed with a warm voice, unique guitar
style, wry sense of humor and captivating knack for storytelling, has
more offers for concert work than he cares to accept. He brings his
guitars to Espenschied Chapel in Mascoutah on Sunday night.
In the '60s, Rush was at the epicenter of a folk and blues tradition
that exploded and changed popular music. He was a major catalyst,
discovering and first recording songs by unknowns named Joni
Mitchell, Jackson Browne and James Taylor.
But that came later. First came years learning his craft in the
coffeehouses, playing with and listening to blues and folk legends at
places such as the Club 47 in Cambridge.
"You'd go into this little room that seated 80 people, and sit there
and listen to the Carter Family or Sleepy John Estes or Mississippi
John Hurt, Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, just on and on and on," Rush
says. "Giants would come and play there and be 10 feet away from you.
That music was just so overwhelming and compelling. I got swept away with it."
Meanwhile, Boston was alive with new talent: Rush, Eric von Schmidt,
Richie Havens, Chris Smither, Peter Rowan, Maria Muldaur, Spider John
Koerner, Eric Andersen, Bonnie Raitt, and visitors including Bob
Dylan and Joan Baez, among many others.
Rush's first album, "Live at the Unicorn," arrived in 1962. Folk
albums followed until the landmark "The Circle Game" on Elektra
Records in 1968. It was lush and atmospheric, and a huge departure for Rush.
"I remember hearing Joni Mitchell, she came into a club I was playing
at in Detroit. And she sang a short, four-song set, and one of those
was 'Urge for Going,'" he says of the "Circle Game" track. "I was
just mesmerized by that.
"Then James Taylor sat on the floor of an unfurnished office at
Elektra with a tape recorder, and he sang some songs into the tape
recorder for me. And I ended up singing a couple of them ('Something
in the Way She Moves' and 'Sunshine, Sunshine') on 'The Circle Game.'"
That album also included the beautiful and emotionally raw "No
Regrets" by Rush, which would become the title of his
career-anthology CD on Columbia/Legacy. He would write more songs
over a subsequent five-album stay at Columbia. But while the quality
of his writing never flagged, he admits he has "not been a prolific writer."
"I hate it, which is why I don't do a lot of it," Rush says. "But
once in a while a song pops out that I'm content with. I've actually
done more writing in the past 10 years than I did in the first 30.
It's hard work."
He has embraced the digital era, using his online music store at
www.tomrush.com to offer MP3 downloads of songs no longer in physical print.
"I should be commercially extinct," Rush says. "But I'm busier than I
want to be. It's a puzzle. ... I'm probably going to take another
stab (at a new CD) in the next few months. But I'm a little nervous
that it could screw everything up.
"I mean, maybe the fact that I haven't made an album in all this time
is the reason people are coming to see me in concert."
Told that he sounds like a happy man who has led a clean,
tabloid-free life, Rush laughs:
"That's because I paid 'em off. No, I haven't gotten myself in too
much trouble over the years. I've managed to wiggle out of what I
have gotten into. Yeah, I'm enjoying myself.
"But I'm not at all interested in retiring. For one thing, I've got
another college tuition coming up, so I've gotta keep going."
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Singer/songwriter Tom Rush keeps his music viable amid industry changes
By Saby Reyes-Kulkarni
Published: February 14, 2008
My audience didn't care," veteran folk singer Tom Rush says laughing
as he tries to explain why he didn't receive the same backlash for
going electric with his sound in the 1960s the way Bob Dylan did.
"I don't know why that was," he admits, "but I think Dylan had this
image of purity, which I have never been accused of! So when he went
off in a different direction, people felt betrayed. My thing has
always been to try different things, mix up different disciplines.
People don't really have a firm idea of what to expect from me."
Indeed, Rush's career in its first ten years alone straddles the
so-called folk revival of the '60s, most often represented by Dylan
and Joan Baez, and the folk-rock movement that followed in the early
'70s. Rush's 1968 album The Circle Game, which famously introduced
the masses to the music of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Jackson
Browne, is even credited by Rolling Stone as having "ushered in the
A native New Englander, Rush got his start in the then-burgeoning
Boston coffeehouse scene after graduating from Harvard and realizing
that the job prospects for an English major even from Harvard
were dim. So he turned instead to the streets of Cambridge (lying
just outside of Boston, it's where Harvard is situated) to make his
way. Now based in Wyoming and approaching his 50th year as a
performer, Rush's sense of stylistic freedom isn't surprising when
you consider the adventurous production of his early work, not to
mention his broad definition of folk itself.
"If you scratch the surface on Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen," he
offers, "their roots are in folk and blues."
Unsurprisingly, Rush shrugs off purism with laughter and blunt honesty.
"The folk audience at the time could really be pretty prudish about
the purity of the music, which is a bit comical. The crowd that I was
running with was a bunch of Harvard students singing about how tough
it was to work in coal mines and chop cotton. It was kind of
ludicrous. I mean, our love for the music was genuine, but to
castigate somebody because they had somehow violated some code of
ethics was odd, because we were definitely several generations
removed from the genuine article."
Since then, Rush says, "the divisions between genres have dissolved."
Rush thinks this is a positive thing, and his perspective was honed
by all the time he's put into running his own label and production
company. Though that company, Maple Hill Productions, still exists in
name, it no longer handles the business affairs for other artists and
now operates strictly as a vehicle for Rush himself. But before
scaling the operation down, Rush spent years as a musician/executive
and thus acquired the invaluable business experience that still
informs his outlook today. As a result, he envisions a bright path
ahead for music, as the structure of the industry continues to shift
"Now," he proposes, "with the internet, there are as many different
audiences out there as individuals. You can tailor your playlists to
your own tastes. There really are no more mass markets. There's a
massive market, but everybody doesn't gather around the same station
or around MTV or troop down to the record store to buy the same
album. But I don't think the viability of the music has shifted. I
think the viability of the market has shifted. Music today is doing
better than it ever has. It's the industry that's in trouble. There's
more people listening to more music than ever before."
Rush speaks from recent experience. His video for "The Remember Song"
has hit the 3 million-play mark on YouTube and is climbing by the day.
"That's an interesting example," he says, "of what the new music
scene is about. Three million plays, and I don't get paid a penny for
it. But nowadays, my shows are selling out and the webstore at
tomrush.com is busier than it used to be. I think giving away music
or some of it is part of the new scene, so that you can make a
living on the rest of it."
Rush is quick to point out that most of the people playing his video
online aren't 20-somethings or teens but baby boomers of his
generation. He should know a lot about the makeup of his audience, as
it was an inquiry into who was listening to folk music that got him
into the business side of music in the first place. In 1975, after
immersing himself in his career for five straight years, Rush decided
it was time for a break and retreated to his New Hampshire farm,
where he worked the farm and barely picked up his guitar for nine
months. Once the itch to play came back, he was stunned to discover
on his return that the audience for his music had diminished.
"It had never really occurred to me to wonder what the makeup of my
audience was," he recalls. "But I was being told by the record
industry that there wasn't any audience anymore, which just didn't
make sense to me. They couldn't have all died at the same time. I
started poking around trying to figure out what the problem was. I
knew there was an audience there. I just couldn't connect with them
any longer through the conventional mechanisms."
It's more or less the position Rush is in today, trying to keep up
with his audience and bringing in revenue. He illustrates the
marketing issue with a kind of simple math that doesn't take long to
"It's a tradeoff," Rush says about being independent versus working
with a major label, "but if you figure that I would sell, let's say,
a hundred thousand records for [his old label] Columbia and my
royalty was 20 cents each; or, on the other side, I could make my own
albums, sell ten thousand copies, and make $10 each which one would
Using this model, Rush can still afford to operate and even thrive
within ever-fluctuating market conditions.
"Folk music has gone through periods of popularity," he says. "It
ebbs and flows, but in the late '60s, folk music became pop music.
There was a very steep trajectory on both sides of the curve, because
whatever's popular today isn't going to be popular tomorrow. It was
no longer pop music, but that didn't mean there was no audience. It
just meant that the pop music machine had moved on to something else
disco, I recall. I was hoping folk music could become a fixture in
the American music scene, like classical and jazz. And I think that's
kind of happened now."
But with such a strong tradition of protest, does the fact that this
music appeals mainly to financially comfortable baby boomers mean
that it's lost its edge? Isn't there something a little incongruous
about folk's enduring leftist image?
"The protest thing," he answers, "was only one dimension. I think
social protest is still there, but it's become more humorous rather
than vitriolic. Humor is more the bludgeon of choice these days,
which I think is a good development."