Tom Rush Still Has His Stage Legs—and His Sense of Humor

by Eric Althoff

***Publisher’s Note: Since this article was written and published, Tom Rush has since postponed his Alexandria show, but will reschedule down the road.***

Despite such storied musicians as James Taylor and Garth Brooks citing him as one of the great folk influences of the 20th century, Tom Rush insists he wasn’t out to change the world, musically or otherwise. Rather, he had a rather simple reason for picking up the guitar at a young age to write songs.

“I wasn’t trying to impact anybody, I was trying to meet girls,” Rush said via phone from his home in Massachusetts. “Anybody that tells you different is lying.”

It is that wry sensibility, combined with a poet’s virtuosity with words and an ear for catchy melody, that has kept Rush in the singer-songwriter firmament for over a half-century. 

In the 1960s, while studying English at Harvard, he started out in the clubs of Boston at around the same time Bob Dylan was shaking up the coffeehouses in New York. Rush is often credited not only with reviving the folk scene in the ‘60s, but of keeping up interest in the genre long after it went electric. 

And just as Dylan infamously plugged in his guitar at the Newport Folk Festival to usher in that second wave of folk rock, Rush’s work in the 21st century is far different than it used to be. In fact, he said, the industry that gave him his start six decades ago has basically ceased to be.

“Back in the olden days, if you didn’t have a record deal, you didn’t exist,” Rush said. “That’s all you needed because the record company would get you on the radio, and [that] would sell concert tickets. It was a cozy relationship that benefited whoever had a record deal and totally excluded anybody who didn’t.”

“That’s not the case anymore,” he said of life as a musician in the digital age. “The record industry has become pretty irrelevant to most musicians except for the handful that can sell some tonnage. And even ‘tonnage’ isn’t what it used to be.”

Rush blazed many paths for those who followed, not the least of which was appearing in one of the first “music videos” for his seminal song, “No Regrets,” in 1968 (then, as now, the video was used to promote the single). 

“I’ve always looked at recordings as being basically an advertisement for the (live) shows,” he said. “I’ve always made my living on stage.” And he continues to do so, with an upcoming appearance at the Birchmere in Alexandria on March 21. 

“The Birchmere has been a favorite stop of mine for eons now,” he said. “Everyone there knows what they’re doing and seems to have a great time doing it. It’s a well-oiled machine…the audience is always great. It’s one of my favorite stops of the year.”

Nonetheless, life on the road can be a grind at the best of times. Rush, now 79, takes the good with the bad of being a traveling musician—and does so again with typical humor.

“I’m kicking off my ‘first annual’ farewell tour. Next year, to avoid tedium, I might just skip right to the 10th annual (farewell tour), but I haven’t decided yet,” he said. “I figure, why be coy?”

The singer has never forgotten his roots in the folk cafes of Boston, most notably at the storied Club 47. Over the decades, Rush has put on various “Club 47 concerts” to showcase the likes of Shawn Colvin and Nanci Griffith and thus helping introduce newer artists to a larger audience. 

“My encapsulated advice for the up-and-comers is play in front of a live audience as much as you possibly can,” Rush said, adding that one live run through could teach you more about your own song than six months of practicing to an empty room. “Somewhere around the 18th verse, if you see some people start to look at their watches, it tells you the song is too long.”

(All of this advice and more will be found in a forthcoming book Rush is working on, which, while yet untitled, bears the intriguingly direct subtitle: “Why You Probably Don’t Want to Be a Professional Musician.”)

To the Birchmere Rush will bring his 12- and 6-string axes in various tunings as well as his prize, a MacKenzie and Marr made specifically for him by the Canadian guitar manufacturer and featuring a nude woman with a snake wrapped about her on the fretboard.

“I’ll have a naked lady with me,” Rush said in his sardonic tone. “When the roadie yell to the stagehand, ‘Tom wants the naked lady in the dressing room. Hurry!’ heads would turn.” 

He will also have a—presumably clothed—young guitarist by the name of Matt Nakoa joining him onstage. 

“He is a giant talent. This guy should be playing stadiums, and I should be opening act,” Rush said of his young charge. “But he’s my accompanist, and I’m delighted to have him on stage with me.”

Rush said his daughter attends George Washington, but as it will be spring break, he suspects she won’t come to the Birchmere. However, he is hoping that other musician chums like Tom Paxton and D.C. folk music radio royalty Mary Cliff might stop by to say hello. 

“It’s gonna be fun. I don’t know if emotional rollercoaster is the right term, but I do some sad songs and I do some funny songs and I tell some stories that are mostly true and sometimes even better than true,” Rush said of his act. “I’m all over the lot: folk singer, blues singer, country singer, standup comedian, storyteller and a few other things.” 

“And I have a great deal of fun doing it.”

Tom Rush’s ‘First Annual Farewell Tour’ will come to the Birchmere in Alexandria on March 21st. 

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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 Alexandria, Virginia, with his fiancee, Victoria.

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