The call is from an unknown location in southern Maine. Tom Rush, the grandfather of American folk, is on the horn and wants to talk about two upcoming shows, Thursday, July 21 and Friday, July 22, at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport.
He has minutes before recording a bunch of songs for his new project “Rockport Sundays”.
The first, admittedly off-topic, question is “what’s the connection between a storyteller and an overnight sensation?”
After all, his version of “The Remember Song”, written by Steve Walters, has garnered over 7 million views on YouTube. Taking advantage of the attention Rush’s version brought, Walters even recorded the hit again, praising Rush for reaching millions of listeners.
How it happened ?
“I don’t remember,” he deadpans, explaining that he heard the song at a concert in Wyoming and decided to perform it for a special Judy Collins concert in California that was being taped. to be broadcast. The song was not included in the final cut of the series, Rush said, but he had access to all of the songs he performed.
“My webmaster was putting stuff up on YouTube and I said ‘let’s put this thing up Remember. I don’t know, somebody might like it. And, of course, that’s the one that took off.
“Storytellers aren’t usually overnight thrills, I guess.”
For an artist who looks a bit like Mark Twain, storytelling seems effortless for Rush.
“I started telling stories early on because I realized that if the audience likes you, they’re much more likely to like the song you’re about to do. So I would try to involve the audience by telling them a story about the song I’m going to do next, otherwise it might be totally irrelevant,” he said.
As an example of the power of storytelling, Rush offers a story of Robert L. Jones — known for his topical storytelling and his love of Woody Guthrie songs — playing Club 47 in People’s heyday.
“I actually heard him once do a 30-minute set and never move to do a song,” Rush said.
“He didn’t realize it – it was just one story led to another and then the 30 minutes were up and it was ‘thank you so much’. Anyway, I took a page from his book.
“So I tell stories and people love it, I get requests for the stories. ‘Tell the New Hampshire guy’s one…’ It takes my breath away but people look at the stories…like the songs. “That’s what Tom does,” he said.
“I think if the person telling the story thinks it’s funny, you’re going to laugh.”
No regrets, no politics
“I try not to play politics. Sometimes I can’t help it. I send out a newsletter regularly… and whenever I’m in politics. In fact, I think most of my audience members are like-minded people, but I’m going to piss somebody off and have a blowback,” he said. Rush said he tries to practice civility by dealing with the occasional angry emails.
Rush said he sees the shows as a chance for fans to get away from the daily grind.
“I don’t do politics in the shows themselves,” he said, “I would like my shows to be a bit of a vacation away from all the problems in someone’s life. You can go to a Tom Rush show and forget all about it and have a good time for a few hours.
Sing in choir
“I personally never really got into the protest song stuff. Protest songs – when I started – there was Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and, of course, Dylan and they wrote powerful protest songs. But I don’t know if they ever changed their minds, but they helped bring like-minded people together. So they reinforced the message – I don’t know if they converted anyone.
“Writers who converted people, and Dylan might be one of them, but Woody Guthrie, for example, wouldn’t write songs about issues, he would write songs about people. If you sympathize with that person, you then sympathize with the situation that person was in – it might change your mind about that situation.He was a very effective protest writer.
A perfect illustration of this, Rush said, is “Deportee,” by Guthrie.
“He gives names to these people, they weren’t just deportees,” he said.
In recent years, Rush has lived all over these parts of New England. Now in southern Maine, he recently spent about two years in Rockport, some time in suburban Boston and, of course, in his home state of New Hampshire. “And don’t forget Vermont, I lived there too,” he adds.
But he also lived in Wyoming and California and spent time in New York after college.
But he called Deering, New Hampshire, home for 18 years and admits that when you’re born and raised in New England, it’s in your blood.
“I think that’s about right.”
Shalin Liu Performance Center on the waterfront in Rockport is near and dear to Rush. It can’t say enough about the venue.
“Shalin Liu is one of the most fabulous venues in the world. It’s just a total treat. I play it every year, sure, we’ve missed a few with COVID, but I’ve been playing it two nights a year forever, since somewhere in the Harding administration. I’m really looking forward to it, it’s a spectacularly beautiful place,” he said.
COVID came early
Just before the pandemic hit, Rush performed the first leg of this winter’s New England tour – including a January 2020 show at Newburyport’s Firehouse Center for the Arts – then headed south. It was on the plane ride back to Rockport from Florida that Rush likely contracted COVID-19, he said.
He fell very ill but never had to be hospitalized.
“It’s not fun – I don’t recommend it, please go get your shots, folks,” he said.
Just about six months into the pandemic, in September 2020, a few venues attempted to open with greatly reduced crowds, masking and social distancing as part of the concert experience. And Rush found himself, just months after recovering from the virus, on stage at Portsmouth Music Hall, socially distant from his partner in crime Matt Nokia, playing for a handful of fans, all in masks.
“They did it well, they spaced people out. They didn’t pack them together…they had really good ventilation and everyone was wearing masks. It was a little weird, but actually it was great to be able to play for people.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
Thursday July 21
& Friday, July 22, 8 p.m.
Shalin Liu Performance Center
37 Main Street, Rockport