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When asked how he feels about the claims that he started the singer-songwriter movement nearly four decades ago, Tom Rush answers with characteristic flippancy.
"Guilty," says Rush sarcastically, not hiding his contempt for the label that has dogged him his entire career. In 1965, Elektra Records released The Circle Game, widely considered a landmark of folk music even though Rush's own songs and the songs he chose to cover had little in common with the prevailing trends circulating around Harvard University at the time.
"It was really ridiculous to have all these English majors singing about how tough it was in the mines and cotton fields," says the acerbic and dryly humorous Rush. At 65, he speaks candidly from his Santa Barbara home about his influence and legacy.
"I tried to get into the spirit of the music without posing as an authentic, illiterate sharecropper," says Rush.
With artists as diverse as James Taylor, Garth Brooks, Scott Walker and Midge Ure covering Rush's songs, his continued relevance is undeniable. One of the very few artists equally adept at writing poignant original material and selecting songs from a surprising array of sources, Rush has made a career out of being wonderfully unpredictable.
"I like a lot of different stuff," says Rush, "And that makes my work a bit schizophrenic."
Yet for all the praise directed toward Rush for being the first person to record the songs of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Jackson Browne, the New Englander is quick to downplay the significance of his keen eye for talent.
"I owed the label an album, and I didn't have enough songs," says Rush. "So I was desperately casting about for songs that I liked." These included Mitchell's "Urge for Going" and Taylor's "Rainy Day Man," songs that were yearning, personal accounts of loss that, for better or worse, ushered in the sensitive singer-songwriter movement of the '70s.
"For me, certain songs just lit up like Christmas trees," says Rush. "I was just looking for good material."
And he found it. Besides covering classic blues ("Galveston Flood") and sublime folk (Eric von Schmidt's "Joshua Gone Barbados"), Rush wrote "No Regrets," one of the best encapsulations of breaking up ever committed to vinyl. The song has become a staple of his current tour, although Rush isn't opposed to shelving any song if it becomes tiresome.
"I'll do another one with many of the same notes in it," says Rush, laughing.
After spending the last several years producing the Club 47 series of new folk concerts (featuring Allison Krause and Emmylou Harris), Rush is currently working on a new studio effort and is quite content doing things, as always, his own way.
"I'm happy doing music that appeals to me," he says. "How people deal with it is secondary."
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