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A conversation with celebrated singer/songwriter Tom Rush before his WNC concert

BPR's Laura Blackley caught up with acclaimed singer/songwriter Tom Rush before his performance at the Parker Concert Hall in Brevard
BPR's Laura Blackley caught up with acclaimed singer/songwriter Tom Rush before his performance at the Parker Concert Hall in Brevard

Celebrated folk and blues singer and guitaristTom Rush is in Western North Carolina this week for a performance with multi-instrumentalist Matt Nakoa at Brevard Music Center. He's known for influencing and championing countless musicians over the decades and turns 82 this week. BPR's Laura Blackley caught up with Rush over Zoom before he landed in North Carolina.

And it felt so strange…

Tom Rush is a singer with the rare gift of conveying melancholy ballads but there's an uplifting quality in his voice. songs in such a way that they lift the spirits of those who listen. He was once credited by Rolling Stone with ushering in the era of the singer-songwriter mainly because he sang his own material as well as songs by the likes of Joni Mitchell James Taylor and Jackson Browne, helping them become more widely known early in their careers.

LB: It’s great to talk to you. I would like to talk to you a little bit about your collaboration with Matt Nakoa.

TR: Sure we can do that.

I was a king bee....

LB: Did you co-write this song, “Nothing but a Man”, or is this one of your compositions? TR: No, that's mine. We haven't co-written anything yet, although we have a date to get together in, I think it's in March. Uh, a couple of weeks in March to do some recording and writing. And I'm looking forward to that. But “Nothing but a Man” is my composition, which Matt brings to life the way he tends to bring things to life. He's fabulous talent.  

Nothing but a man, love you honey....

TR: I'd fallen in love with folk music and I was offered this folk music radio show on Harvard's FM station. It was called Ballads. It was a 30 minute show on, I think Tuesday nights maybe. And I had to get guests to come on my show. So I had to go out to the hootenannies, which is what they called open mics back then to recruit guests for my radio show. And I discovered you could get in for free if you had a guitar with you. And, uh, I got caught one night at a place called the Golden Vanity. “Hey kid, you got in for nothing. Get on stage!” And I had to borrow a guitar. I was terminally nervous, but apparently did well enough that the guy called me a few weeks later, somebody was sick, and would I come be a substitute folk singer? And that was my first, my first start on stage.

Goodbye mama...

Self-taught on the guitar, Rush was heavily influenced by the plaintive finger picking styles of Southern Appalachia’s, Piedmont blues musicians, as well as folk, old time country, and the ballads of Woody Guthrie. His voice is laid back and easygoing, almost deceptively so, and he uses it to sing of impossible relationships, of being lost, of longing, and of saying goodbye.  

There ain’t no use

LB: You've had a number of adventures throughout the years,

TR: (Laughs) A few, one or two or so!

 LB: What role do you feel most at home in you? You've done blues, you've done a five piece tour in band, you've done the solo strummer thing.   TB:   You know, I enjoy them all. I, I love getting on stage and playing for people. The traveling is not as much fun as it used to be. I'm not 23 anymore, but I love playing on stage. And, and you're right. I think for me, the songs are stories. Each song tells a story. And I will also ramble on, tell some stories in between the songs. I learned early on that if, if the audience likes you, they're much more apt to like the song you're about to do.

Rush playing guitar  

Rush was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the son of a teacher. He majored in English literature while studying at Harvard. And it was also during this time that he deepened his knowledge of folk and blues music  

Foolin around all night long.

TR: Well, as for the blues stuff, there was a coffee house in Cambridge, one block from my dorm room, unfortunately, or fortunately. They not only hosted the local kids, myself included, but they would bring in the legends - the Carter family, Bill Monroe, on and on, and, and a lot of the old blues guys played there. It was a small enough club that you could actually approach these people. You could go up to Sleepy John Estes and say, how do you do that thing you do? And he would show you. It was amazing.

Tom Rush playing guitar

Tom Rush's music has influenced countless up and coming artists. His acclaim is a testament to his ability to use his considerable talents, always in service of the song.

How I feel......

TR: And that's what it's all about. The song is the most important thing. The song and the audience and connecting the two.  

Guitar fades

Laura Blackley has been making music in Western North Carolina for several years. She’s a singer, songwriter and guitarist who specializes in country, blues and rock with an emphasis on songwriting.