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Call it a comeback

After lying low for decades, celebrated singer-songwriter Tom Rush has gone viral

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There are no second acts in American lives, F. Scott Fitzgerald insisted. But that's not to say there aren't encores. And in the case of Tom Rush, those encores have proven to be as impressive as they are unexpected.

A direct descendant of Rob Roy MacGregor — "the greatest cattle thief the Scottish border ever knew, lad," Rush tells me — the singer-songwriter is often cited for his pivotal role in bringing mainstream attention to '60s folk music.

But that all changed when the Harvard-educated musician parted ways with the record industry following the release of his 1974 album, Ladies Love Outlaws. For decades afterward, Rush quietly toured and seemed largely content to release the occasional live recording.

And then everything changed again.

First, Bono covered Rush's "No Regrets" throughout U2's 2005 Vertigo tour. Four years later, Rush released the Nashville-produced What I Know. It was his first studio album in 35 years, and featured guest appearances by Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Bramlett and Nancy Griffith. Most recently, a video for "The Remember Song" surpassed 5 million views. (Find the song on his 2005 concert album, Trolling for Owls, available from tomrush.com.)

In the following interview, the singer-songwriter traces his unlikely career trajectory with characteristic humor and insight.

Indy: Along with people like [producer] Joe Boyd and [Elektra founder] Jac Holzman, you were a big part of bringing singer-songwriters out of the coffeehouses and into the music industry. At the time, did you think that was even possible?

Tom Rush: Well, you know, I never really thought of it in those terms. In '67 or so, I was overdue for delivering an album to Elektra, and I'd been doing pretty much traditional material. I was just looking for songs, and I wasn't finding any more traditional material that raced my engine.

So along come Joni, Jackson and James [Mitchell, Browne and Taylor], with these wonderful songs that have a familiar feel to them. They have a folk sensibility, but they're much more sophisticated lyrically and musically. It didn't feel like a huge leap for me, and I loved the songs, so I said, "OK, Mr. Holzman, I'm ready to go." And we called the album The Circle Game, and that's the one Rolling Stone and everybody said ushered in the singer-songwriter era. But it was quite an accidental by-product of just looking for good material.

Indy: Now one of your songs on that album, "No Regrets," has been covered a lot since, by artists ranging from Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention to U2. So whose version is best?

TR: Well, I think the Walker Brothers' version is the one I'm most fond of, because it put two of my kids through college. And Bono, bless his heart, did in fact — he didn't do the whole song. He used the chorus to close out a song of his own, called "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own," a song he wrote for his dad. Somewhere on the road, the choruses clicked into his head, and he tagged it onto the end of the song. He kept doing it for a while, and it ended up on a video, which was also nice from a royalty perspective.

Indy: The traditional material you started out singing, was that a result of your Scottish heritage?

TR: No, not really. If I did any Scottish music, it was part of just the Irish-Scottish-English collection of traditional songs that's kind of the backbone of the folk repertoire.

Indy: Which isn't all that different, at least in some of the more moody aspects, from Appalachian music.

TR: Right. In fact, because of its isolation and because of the illiteracy rate, Appalachia became a repository for that music, which survived for generations after it had died out in Scotland.

Indy: So the illiteracy resulted in more of an oral culture being handed down?

TR: Exactly. Researchers went into the mountains 70 years ago and found people speaking a form of Old English that had died out a long time ago.

Indy: Your latest album [What I Know] has a kind of stripped-down sound, without the electric guitars and string arrangements that began showing up on your major-label recordings. Was that earlier style of production a record company edict?

TR: No, it wasn't that. No record company has ever told me what to do. Except for Columbia, at the very end of my tenure there. They pretty much dictated the evolution of the Ladies Love Outlaws album, the last one I did for them.

Indy: I read that you became a farmer for a while, and thought about giving up music.

TR: After I left Columbia, I decided I was gonna quit show business. I was kind of burned out. I had been on the road non-stop for about 10 years.

Indy: And making records pretty constantly too, right?

TR: Making records, promoting records, rehearsing bands, touring, traveling. I think I had 10 days off in a five-year period, and they weren't consecutive days off. I was pretty tired out, and so I decided to quit show biz.

I had a farm in New Hampshire, and I moved back up there and drove a tractor around for a couple years. But I decided I wasn't cut out to be a farmer. After a nine-month hiatus, I started sneaking in the occasional gig again, because I just love doing shows.

Indy: You went a pretty long while there — a few decades — between studio albums. Were you recording during that time and just not releasing studio albums, or was it really all about the live performance?

TR: Well, I was performing live during that whole period, and I did release some live projects. I recorded some stuff in my home studio, which never did see the light of day. It still hasn't, maybe never will, and in some cases, probably better if it didn't.

But you know, I was kind of all the time thinking about the next album, but it never came together until Jim Musselman of Appleseed records called and said, "Why don't we make a record together, and get Jim Rooney to produce it?"

Indy: Did you all know each other before that?

TR: Yeah, Jim Rooney's an old, old friend of mine. He used to run Club 47 in Cambridge ...

Indy: Which is where you basically started, right?

TR: Exactly, and then he moved on to Nashville and became a big-time producer.

Indy: Had you stayed in touch much?

TR: Not on a regular basis. But you know, in a small world the way things work, he now lives about 10 miles away from me in Vermont.

Indy: Now Emmylou and you have covered each other's songs, and Bonnie Bramlett and you go all the way back to the [1970] Festival Express train tour together.

TR: Yeah, that's true. And I hadn't seen her since.

Indy: So did you get to hang out in the studio, or was it the kind of thing where they had to come in quickly?

TR: Both her and Emmy — and Nancy Griffith also — they came in and, you know, we visited for a while. But they recorded their tracks, and then they had other things they had to go do. So you know, we didn't get to go bowling or anything.

Indy: You mention on your website that a video of you performing "The Remember Song" had gone viral, and that it had gotten a crazy amount of plays ...

TR: Check it out, it just passed 5 million.

Indy: I didn't know that there were 5 million people out there who actually listen to acoustic music.

TR: Well, apparently there are. Unless it's one guy who just can't remember he's seen it.

bill@csindy.com

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