Tom Rush,
What I Know
(Appleseed, 2009)

It has been 35 years since Tom Rush released a studio album. The last one was the unmemorable Ladies Love Outlaws, pretty much as ill-conceived as its title (from a Lee Clayton song also covered by Waylon Jennings). Before that, however, Rush had done some of the most interesting albums of the 1960s folk revival. Then, with 1968's The Circle Game, he helped usher in the singer-songwriter movement that rose from the revival's ashes. He accomplished this not by becoming a singer-songwriter himself, though he wrote the occasional song (fine ones, too: "No Regrets," "Merrimac County"), but by championing compositions from the likes of the then-unknown Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Jackson Browne.

Rush's long studio silence -- even as he has continued to tour over the decades -- renders it a certainty that some of you will draw a blank at his name, or if you recognize it, do so only dimly. Those curious to know why Rush was -- and still is -- so widely revered, and not just in folk circles (Garth Brooks and U2, among others, have cited him as an influence), might seek out a Columbia Legacy retrospective from 1999. The Very Best of Tom Rush: No Regrets collects highlights from his years with Prestige, Elektra and Columbia, including such enduring performance marvels as the traditional "Galveston Flood" and the late Eric von Schmidt's "Joshua Gone Barbados."

Recorded in Nashville with Rush's old Boston folk-scene associate Jim Rooney producing, What I Know represents a welcome return to form. That magnificent baritone remains, the effects of age (he's in his late 60s) rarely, and then inconsequentially, apparent. Once more, Rush evinces both his superior interpretative skills and his exemplary taste in material, most of it from obscure, if worthy, writers. Besides Rush himself (who contributes five originals, perhaps a record), I recognize only Eliza Gilkyson ("Fall Into the Night"). Well, her and Mentor Williams, whose "Drift Away," a 1973 hit for Dobie Gray, evolved from there into bar-band cliche. The CD's closer, it seems a peculiar choice, though Rush's spare acoustic arrangement (his guitar and John Catchings's cello) at least is a creative treatment.

Joining Rush on vocals are friends and admirers like Emmylou Harris (on Steven Bruton's "Too Many Memories") and Nanci Griffith (on "Casey Jones," an adaptation of the Furry Lewis variant). The album's largely relaxed ambience owes, I presume, to Rush's happy personal situation -- a stable marriage with children -- and to the understandable contentment of a man who's been able to make a living at what he enjoys, and for a long time. Most of the originals are up-tempo and good-humored, but when they're also love songs, be assured that Rush is too much the pro to fill them with hackneyed sentiments and ickiness. "Hot Tonight," the swinging jug-band tune that opens the disc, sets the tone for much of what follows.

Overall, no songs here match his riveting covers of Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going," David Wiffin's "Lost My Driving Wheel" or Murray McLaughlin's "Child's Song." That's all right, though. If you've liked Rush, you'll like this album. And if he's new to you, you'll like it, too. Let's hope that Rush and Appleseed have a long, productive association.

review by
Jerome Clark

21 March 2009

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