He's a Harvard educated singer, songwriter, musician and recording artist who's made a name for himself in the world of Folk music. We are talking about Mr. Tom Rush.
Q - Tom, you're one of the most educated guys I've ever interviewed.
A - (Laughs)
Q - A Bachelor Of Arts degree from Harvard. It almost seems like you're over-qualified to be doing the work you're doing.
A - Well, I don't know if I'm over or under.
Q - Were you working your way through Harvard by singing and playing guitar?
A - No. My parents were paying the tuition. But, I was almost flunking out because I was spending too much time playing the guitar.
Q - What were you studying at Harvard?
A - English Literature.
Q - That would probably come in handy if you're going to be a songwriter, right?
A - Well, I don't know if English Lit really is good. There's no real career path attached to it, but a father of a friend of mine said it's a good background for almost anything. So I figured, okay, that's what I'll do.
Q - When you graduated from Harvard, what did you do? Is that when you started singing?
A - I actually dropped out half way through my junior year 'cause I was about to flunk out if I didn't drop out. I spent a year traveling around, getting myself outside the Boston area. I went down to New York and Philadelphia and finally ended up in Florida, hanging out in Coconut Grove with a bunch of musicians down there, including David Crosby, Freddy Neal and a whole bunch of people. Then I decided I would go back to Harvard and finish up the three semesters that were remaining. During that time I made my first two albums before I graduated.
Q - But not on a major label?
A - The first one was on a microscopic label that didn't really exist, but it was an odd thing. I had an album and nobody else did. So somehow I was more legitimate.
Q - Was it hard to get a record deal when you were starting out?
A - At the moment I did that one, yes it was, but then Vanguard Records and Prestige Records came swooping in and signed up almost everybody in the Boston / Cambridge area that could play a guitar, except me. I was having trouble getting a deal and I finally got Paul Rothschild, who was producing records for Prestige at that point, to sign me up. We made an album. Paul left and went to Elektra. I wanted to go with Paul to Elektra. Jac Holzman, the head of Elektra, wanted me over there and Prestige was saying, "No, you can't leave. We have a contract." I bluffed. I said, "I don't need this stuff. I'm a Harvard guy. I'm gonna quit show biz altogether, but I'll tell you what, I'll make you one more album if you'll let Paul Rothschild produce it," and they didn't like that because they were mad at Paul because he bailed out and went over to a competitor. They said, "Okay, but you're never going to get Jac Holzman to produce an album for Prestige," and I said, "Let me worry about that." Jac Holzman said, "Sure!" We made the album and actually the next week we went back into the studio and made my first album for Elektra. Elektra got it into the stores before Prestige did. So it's a little murky as to what my third album was. In terms of recording sequence, it was one for this little back porch operation in Cambridge and then two for Prestige and then I started making albums for Elektra.
Q - I was going to talk about Elektra Records later in the interview, but since you brought up Paul Rothschild, I always equate his name with The Doors. Since you were on Elektra Records and The Doors were on Elektra Records, did you ever meet Jim Morrison?
A - I did.
Q - What was he like?
A - (Laughs) I don't have a lot more to say about that. I bumped into him from time to time. The only time I actually spent any time with him was at a party. He was quite drunk and behaving badly, so we won't go into that.
Q - Do you remember that TV show, Then Came Bronson with Michael Parks? I recall they used one of your songs on an episode.
A - I don't remember (that show). Well, I hope they paid me some money for that.
Q - Better look at your royalty statements.
A - Yeah.
Q - You were at one time on tour with a five piece group. Why'd you give that up, or are you still in fact using a band today?
A - The five man band was actually a lot of fun. It was also hugely expensive. There were a lot of mouths to feed. I finally sat down and did some math and realized in a seven day week on the road, the first night I was working for the band. The second night I was working for the manager. The third night I was working for the agent. The fourth night I was working for the airlines. The fifth night I working for the hotels. And the sixth night, if there was one, I might get to keep a little money.
Q - And that was back then!
A - That was back then. I was getting paid good money and somehow I was always broke and I figured out this was why. There was some pretty egregious behavior on the part of the management. I remember there was one four day period where we played in this order: Boston, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco, Philadelphia. There was actually five days. We flew back and forth across the country five times with five guys and a truckload of gear.
Q - Who was booking you?
A - Why I said yes was the next question. We made a ton of money that week, but it all went to the airlines and the management and the booking agent and the band. Anyway, I scaled back little by little and I ended up being a solo act which I enjoy enormously. I'm a solo act today except I found this young whipper snapper named Matt Makoa who is an absolute genius at the keyboards. He's 30 years old. He looks like he's 12, but he's a young man on the rise. He probably won't be around that long being a sideman. I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts.
Q - What kind of music are you playing these days? Are you still a Folk singer?
A - Well, my thing is, define Folk, keeping in mind that I am an academic and I have a rather strict definition. Folk music is music from the oral tradition where there is no author to the song, "Barbara Allen", "Yankee Doodle". Songs that are just there and exist in a bunch of different variance, name of which is correct or incorrect as opposed to compound songs. So, strictly speaking, Woody Guthrie's songs are not Folk music, although they're usually called Folk music, but because they were composed and copyrighted, that is not music from the oral tradition. So I actually do a couple of genuine Folk songs in the course of an evening, but I do some Blues, some Countryish stuff, some fancy songs, some introspective ballads. I'm all over the lot.
Q - If you weren't out on the road doing this kind of material, nobody would hear about this material. It's not the kind of material we would hear on the award shows.
A - That's sad but true. However, I'm seeing more and more young faces in my audiences, so I don't know. There may be hope.
Q - Is songwriting easier for you today or harder because of all the distractions?
A - Well, I think it must be easier because I've had a songwriting spurt in the past year. I've written almost enough songs to make an album entirely of my own writing, which has never happened before. I don't even know if that's a worthwhile goal. I've never particularly cared who wrote the song when I'm putting an album together. If it's a good song, I want to do it. But I've been doing a bunch of writing and I think it's partly because I figured out how to let go more and not try to write, just let songs happen.
Q - When you were signed to a record label, would someone at the label try to get you to record a certain type of song that they thought was a "hit"?
A - You know, I was very fortunate. Elektra and Columbia both, at that point, were of the opinion that the businessmen should just shut up and let the artists do what they do. It then got more into mico-managing. If a band had a "hit" for some other label then you wanted your band to do something that sounded just like that, so you could have a "hit" too. I didn't experience any of that. The only time I came close was the last album I made for Columbia, which is kind of an odd thing. My contract had expired. They had not sent me a renewal notice on time. I contacted them and said, "Okay guys, I'm out of here." They said, "Oh, no, no, no. We meant to send you the renewal notice." I said, "Well, yeah, but you didn't." They said, "If you try to go somewhere else, we'll sue." With that kind of a cloud over you, you can't really go anywhere else. I don't think they would have prevailed and I had no legal advice. They probably would have said ignore them. Anyway, I agreed to do one more album, but they wanted to assign me a producer and make an album they thought was going to have more legs and it didn't work. It was "Ladies Love Outlaws", which I thought was a great project, but it was different enough that my existing audience didn't really warm up to it. And it didn't gain the wider, new audience they were hoping for. So after that, Columbia and I parted ways.
Q - Did they do anything in the way of promotion for the album? It was after all their idea.
A - That's another reason I left Columbia. I had just gotten married to my first wife. Instead of going on a honeymoon I flew to Atlanta to start the promo tour for "Ladies Love Outlaws". I got in on a Friday afternoon and the promo man at the local office wasn't answering his phone. I sat in my hotel room and waited. I sat there for Saturday and I sat there for Sunday. Monday he finally returned my call and said, "Tom, what are you doing in town?" At that point, I said, "Okay, I think I'm done here."