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Singer-Songwriter Tom Rush, after a Frightening Run-in with COVID-19, Returns to the Birchmere

By Eric Althoff

Acclaimed folk and blues artist Tom Rush continues to have a profound impact on the American music scene. In addition to helping to shape the folk revival in the 60’s and the renaissance of the genre in the 80’s and 90s’s, he is credited with ushering in the era of the singer-songwriter. Throughout his successful career, he has championed a number of emerging musicians, including some well-known female artists.

Rush’s early recordings introduced the world to the work of Joni Mitchell, and in more recent years, he has acquainted artists such as Nancy Griffith and Shawn Colvin with wider audiences. Learn more about Rush’s journey with contributing writer Eric Althoff, including his reflections on the evolution of music in the 21st century and details on his upcoming show at the Birchmere.

Tom Rush - Elizabeth Cohon
Tom Rush – Elizabeth Cohon

Two years ago, Tom Rush had a rather serious brush with COVID-19. The singer of “No Regrets” was ill for two weeks with the coronavirus in March 2020, shortly after returning from a final pre-pandemic gig in Florida.

“I was an ‘early adapter,’” Rush says sardonically, adding that even after he conquered the illness that spring, he began experiencing complications in the form of heart palpitations, possibly brought on by the virus. After his doctor examined the results of a heart monitor study, he urged Rush, who lives in Kittery, Maine, to immediately hail an ambulance to get him to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

“He said, ‘We’re afraid you might have an “event.’ The technical term is ‘sudden cardiac death,’ which got my attention,” Rush recalls now. “But because I don’t like being bossed around, I, in fact, went home, had a nice glass of wine and a delicious dinner, and went in the next morning.”

Rush, who turned 81 in February, was lucky. Thanks to a pacemaker in his chest, he has been hale since his scare two years ago. During lockdown, he recorded as much as possible, and broadcast online shows called “Rockport Sundays,” named after his famous song originally released in 1968. He’s been joined on those virtual performances by Trevor Veitch, Monica Rizzio and Buskin & Batteau—all of them enjoying the opportunity to keep playing when the clubs were still closed. 

“The feedback I get from the crowd via email is fabulous. It’s not like a live audience,” Rush said of the Sunday series. “I learned that when you tell a joke to the video camera, it doesn’t laugh. I did one song with Matt Nokoa; he took this brilliant solo, and I said ‘OK, let’s riff for a couple of bars to let the thunderous applause die down.’ I got emails back saying, ‘Yes there was thunderous applause at our house.’” 

Tom Rush - Michael Wiseman
Tom Rush – Michael Wiseman

For a while, the virtual series provided Rush with his only income. But now that, too, is changing. Rush will be returning to the Birchmere in Alexandria on March 12, where he’ll share the stage with favorite guests including Nokoa and Tom Paxton. “He always does a song or two during the course of the show—steals the show, and I pay him to do it,” Rush said of Nokoa, a longtime colleague. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Rush describes the Birchmere as one of his favorite venues anywhere. He praises not only the acoustics and lighting but also the knowledgeable staff and delectable offerings from the kitchen. “The evening flows so easily that I can concentrate on connecting with the audience and having a good time,” he said of playing at the Alexandria stage. “It’s very exciting to be back in front of a live audience.”

Indeed, Rush’s calendar has been filling up fast for 2022, harking back somewhat to his hectic schedule of yore. He recollects one particularly busy week that saw him crossing the country not less than twice in a few short days.

“We played in one week, on consecutive nights, in this order: Boston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington,” he says. “I got paid a lot of money, but it all went right down the drain. I realized the artist is a money dump the way the industry works.”

Tom Rush - Symphony Hall - Neale Eckstein
Tom Rush – Symphony Hall – Neale Eckstein

Indeed, the economic picture of the music industry is topsy-turvy from when Rush first started out over a half-century ago. In his words, back in the day, “if you did not have a record deal, you did not exist,” as it was the labels that put up the funding to get artists into print and on TV. Nowadays, anyone with a computer can produce and distribute their own music. 

However, even if that self-produced music is of quality, Rush says that the key to become better is to play in front of live audiences as often as possible. “You’ll learn more in 10 minutes than you’ll learn in a month playing in your garage,” he said.

Rush is thankful that touring in the 21st century is far more “casual” than the hectic pace of decades ago. Sixty years into his musical career, he can now afford to pick and choose his dates more carefully, thereby programming in time for rest and recuperation—as well as to occasionally enjoy some of the culture and sites in the cities he plays.  

“I announced back in 2020, just before the pandemic, my first annual ‘farewell tour’—first underlined ‘annual’ because I figure, why be coy?” Rush said, pointing to bands that have been on various “final” tours for years or even decades. “It had all the shows listed on it, and…when the pandemic hit, I came up with a pandemic version of the T-shirt: ‘First Annual Farewell Tour Pandemic Edition’ with 67 shows crossed off,” he said with a laugh. “It was a hot seller.”

Tom Rush - Rockport Sunday - Scott Marks
Tom Rush – Rockport Sunday – Scott Marks

Given his age, it’s perhaps unsurprising Rush says the grind of the road is now his least favorite part of the job, especially when it comes to those packed schedules he recalls from his salad days. 

“It’s not like traveling for fun,” he said.  “Maybe I should restructure my schedule so I do have a day off here and a day off there—take a day off in D.C. and go to the [African American] history museum, which I would love to do, but I’m still kind of programmed, and my booking agent is programmed, to pack the gigs together.”

For those fans who might not yet be ready to brave a live show, or those craving a more intimate experience than one offered at the clubs, Rush’s website continues to maintain a roster of “private concerts” for the truly devoted—and which were a staple of his lockdown stretch. 

“They were all very safe and distanced and masked and everything,” the artist said. “People felt safer about getting a few friends together in the backyard than they did about going to the theater. But now, things [have come] around. During the fall, my booking agent booked all of the gigs that didn’t happen for the past 18 months into three months in the fall.  It was very intense, but it was also great to be back out on the road doing shows.” 

Accordingly, it will be all thrusters go at the Birchmere on March 12, even if patrons must still show their vaccine cards to gain entrance. “I love the Birchmere, but that show will be one of, I think, five in a row,” Rush said—perhaps contradicting his own wish to not overschedule himself. “Then I head out to the west coast to do some shows out there.”

To enjoy Rockport Sundays, to sign up for his newsletter, or to purchase tickets to the Birchmere show, visit TomRush.com

Eric Althoff

A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.

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