No regrets: Tom Rush celebrates a Vineyard life well lived

Tom Rush at Moshup Beach, 2008. —Peter Simion

When Tom Rush returns to the Whaling Church for a concert next Wednesday, he’ll be returning home. His roots run deep here on the Island; in fact thinking back to my high school days, if I had a soundtrack playing in my head for the Island back then, it would have been played by Tom Rush, even before James or Carly. Sitting around Peter Simon’s studio recently for my interview with Rush, Simon said, “I think Tom has had as much impact on the Vineyard as anyone I can think of, especially in terms of longevity.”

Rush had an aunt in West Tisbury, where he used to spend summers when he was about 16 or 17. In fact, one of his earliest recollections was an encounter at a naked beach — probably Hornblowers Beach. “We went down to check out the naked girls,” Rush said unabashedly, “I still had my clothes on and then I look up and see the mother of one of my friends and I’m totally paralyzed. Just about then the cops come and they start arresting us for trespassing. We end up in the paddy wagon and then the paddy wagon gets stuck in the sand and the cops have to ask these naked people to push them out — we all ended up in jail together.”

It wasn’t long before Rush started playing gigs at the Chilmark Community Center and at the Chilmark Tavern. Kate Taylor remembers having a big crush on Rush way back when. “I remember Tom playing ‘Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate’ and thinking the song was about me,” she recalled.

The Community Center gig was, as advertised, very much a community thing. “There were always three or four acts at Hootenanny Night,” Rush said. ”There was Jim Rooney and Billy Keith, who was just learning to play the banjo back then by recording on reel-to-reel everything that Earl Scruggs ever played, and then slowing it down to half speed and learning it note for note. David Gude was part of that too.There was some really good talent back then.”

After high school, Rush went to Harvard. He remembers when he got his first break at a hootenanny outside of Harvard Square. “I discovered that you got in free if you brought a guitar, and then I discovered you could get in free if you had just a guitar case so I’d put a six pack in the guitar case and headed off to the hootenanny and I got stuck one night at a place called the Golden Vanity, where they ran out of singers and they said ‘Hey kid, get on stage’ and I had to borrow a guitar, and I was terrified because it was my first time onstage at a coffee house.”

Rush would regularly come to the Vineyard in the summer, where thanks to places like the Mooncusser coffee house in Oak Bluffs, the folk revival was in full swing.

“At the Mooncusser,” said Rush, “they had a house where they used to put all the artists. We’d play for five days or so at a time and stay even longer because it was the Vineyard, and we’d spend a lot of time at the Lampost. I remember I overlapped with the Clancy Brothers once and I was in the Lamppost with Liam Clancy and it was closing time and he didn’t hear last call. Ten minutes later he ordered another and the bartender said no and Liam begged and then started to curse as only the Irish can do — very creative and a lot of stuff about the bartender’s mother — and after five minutes without repeating himself, his final salvo was ‘May your gross overhead exceed your profit, that’s the only language you bastards understand,’ and then stormed out into the night.”

Then there was the night when West Tisbury’s Danny Bryant was making the claim that he could find a deer on the Island any hour of the day or night — within 15 minutes. Sure enough, Rush and a party from the Ritz piled into Bryant’s jeep and drove down some fire lanes, lights out in the rain in November, and Bryant said, “When I turn the lights on there are going to be at least two deer.” There were six.

I had seen Rush perform many times over the years, both on and off the Vineyard. I considered myself a huge fan, so imagine my surprise when my partner in an ad agency in Boston said to me one afternoon, “Got a guy named Tom Rush coming in after work, you want to talk to him?” My partner was strictly a Ray Charles guy. “Do I ever!” I said.

We shared the same attorney with Rush and my partner thought maybe we could give him some advice. It was the early 80s and Rush was having trouble with his record label. They didn’t think he was attracting the right demographic. Rush didn’t understand. “Everywhere I play the shows are sold out,” he said.

I’m not sure if we were actually able to give him any constructive advice; I believe after that he may have begun to reach “his demographic” through ads in The New Yorker. But what happened next was brilliant: Rush started producing reunion concerts at Symphony Hall over the holidays. And then after his fourth year, he put a little sharper point on the idea and called them “Club 47 Reunion Concerts.”

Club 47 (later to be called Club Passim) was a seminal coffee house back in the 60s in Harvard Square where the likes of Rush, Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, and Bob Dylan started making names for themselves. But these were the kids; the major acts tended to be classic artists like  Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Maybelle Carter, and Flatt and Scruggs.

The concept behind the Club 47 Reunion Concerts was Club 47. “The heart and soul of Club 47 shows,” Rush said, “was getting everyone to get together and sing out of their comfort zone with another act … especially to give the kids on the bill a chance to listen to and even play with the masters. Except the old masters now were now Rush, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris and Richie Havens, and the kids were Nanci Griffith, Shawn Colvin, and Alison Krauss.

The concert series was a huge success and soon Rush took the show on the road and played to capacity houses at Carnegie Hall in New York, and the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

“Enough about the past,” I said, “what’s life like for you these days?”

“I’m doing about 60 shows a year,” Rush said, “I’m good with that. I’m 77 years old and that scratches the itch and pays the rent. I wouldn’t want to go back on the road like I did in the 70s. I’m living up in southern Maine and doing about two hours of writing a day.”

The writing has proved to be very productive, Tom just released a new album entitled “Voices” and while on a normal album Rush might have a song or two of original material like his classic “No Regrets” or “Rockport Sunday,” 10 of the 12 songs recorded on “Voices” were written by Rush.

“Some reviewer pointed out that up til then I had only written 20 of the songs recorded over 55 years, and then another 10 all at once — a third of my songwriting output is all on this project. It might be the songwriting equivalent of Epicormic branching, which is where trees start putting out a lot of sprouts at random times — when an old or stressed tree starts putting out sprouts in great profusion.”

Rush will play Wednesday, July 25, at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. It will be a homecoming for a number of reasons, including the fact Rush loves playing at the Whaling Church. “I’ve played there several times over the years,” said Rush, “I love that venue, it’s a spectacular setting, sounds good, feels good.”

He also will be playing for a good cause — the concert will be a fundraiser for WMVY and Rush knows how much they’ve contributed to the Island music scene. “I know the power of radio,” said Rush.”Years ago I gave Dick Summer at WBZ radio in Boston a copy of a tape ‘An Urge for Going,’  there was no product to buy, he had an advance copy. When it finally did come out as a single it was number one on ‘BZ … got fan mail from New Zealand and Guam …. Made me appreciate the importance of radio; the whole point of this whole exercise is connecting the music to the audience and radio is still the most important way of doing that, and so MVY is a key part of the way musicians and audiences connect and God bless ‘em … happy to be doing something to help them out.”

As a parting question, I asked Rush, if looking back over his career, to use the title of one of his signature songs … “No regrets?”

“Sure, there are some things I would have done differently if I had any sense,“ said Rush, “but basically no, I had a lot of fun, made a good living doing something I love to do, and regard myself as being a very lucky guy. I got to make music with some extraordinarily people.”

An Evening with Tom Rush at the Old Whaling Church, Wednesday, July 25, 7:30 pm.