[20 April 2009]
It only takes about 10 seconds of listening to Tom Rush pick and sing on his first studio record in 35 years for one to ask, “Where the hell has he been?” Rush, one of the original instigators of the great folk revival of the ‘60s, seems to have been missing in action. Sure, every once in a while a live record would crawl out of Massachusetts, but he’s been basically unheard from for decades. And now he releases this, a baker’s dozen of great self-penned tunes, obscure covers, and traditional tunes all performed in that distinctive, laid-back yet intimate Tom Rush style.
Rush was best-known for two reasons back in the day. He was one of the first of the traditional folkies to jump to Bob Dylan’s defense when Dylan went electric in 1965, and followed in the man’s footsteps. And he was the first to discover and record the music of then unknown artists like Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and James Taylor. Mitchell, in particular, is a difficult musician to cover because she has such a distinctive voice and style. Rush’s version of her “Urge for Going” is still the touchstone by which other Mitchell covers are measured. No one has topped it.
On this album, he’s unearthed gems as different as Richard Dean’s military veteran’s look at life “All a Man Can Do” and Eliza Gilkyson’s sensually romantic “Fall into the Night”, and made them his own by personifying the main character through their longings for redemption. Rush can deliver lines as diverse as “I took my engine made of steel, I walked it through the killing fields” and “Baby, take your blue jeans off and lay your body down” and make them sound conversational and natural. He’s the boy next door who went to war, and the kid the girl next door always loved, all wrapped into one.
Rush receives some top-notch harmony assistance. Bonnie Bramlett joins him on his self-penned ode to painting the town red, “Hot Tonight”. Emmylou Harris ethereally assists him on Steve Bruton’s melancholy “Too Many Memories”. And Nanci Griffith helps him turn the old folk song “Casey Jones” into something new and bouncy. While these women do a fine job, most of the singing belongs to Rush, and his vocals have never sounded better. He can turn simple lyrics, like “I don’t know how deep the sea is / And I don’t know how high the sky”, from the intro to the title song, into a declaration of love just by enunciating in a soft and low voice.
Rush’s style falls somewhere between folk and country; think if Willie Nelson came from New England instead of Texas. There’s a bluesy edge to his voice that gives the lyrics a warm resonance, and he’s always careful to articulate. He knows the words are important and never lets them get lost in the music. Rush isn’t afraid to be warm and personal, as on the gentle, longing cadences of Kim Beard Day/Melanie Dyer’s “What an Old Lover Knows” or shy about being bawdy, as on his frisky “One Good Man”. He just wants his passions to be heard.
The two sides of Rush are combined on his cover of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away”. Rush slows the song down and lets the spiritual and sensual elements of the tune shine through. One can feel this as he sings “C’mon, soothe me” in a way that could mean the balm of the lord or the touch of a lover.
So what does Rush know after all these years of not recording? Well, he clearly knows a good song when he hears one and has enough sense to cover it. He knows how to sing, write, and play heartfelt material about love and life. And he knows the time has come for him to release a new album. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another 35 years for the next one.