CD Review – Tom Rush “What I Know”

Tom Rush has been a part of my musical world since I was first introduced to “No Regrets” when I was in high school, and then I explored ”Panama Limited” and other acoustic blues clues to his beginnings after I saw him in concert at the Celebrity Theater back in 1971.      The kid that introduced me to this man’s music was Rick Rogers.  Rick was a slow talking, longhaired, guitar toting hippie wannabe, with a gentle soul and easy laugh, who said to me in passing, “you should listen to Tom Rush, you’d like him”.   How he knew I don’t know.   But he was right.  I did.   If you are out there somewhere, Rick, I owe you!


The 3 singers and songwriters at the top of the pyramid for me for years were Gordon Lightfoot, Tom Rush and John Stewart.   I was fixated on their music and to this day, I own every piece of vinyl any of them have ever released, and in some cases, extra copies because I wore them out.   Mark Knopfler has joined this elite club in my later years.     John Stewart died last January and Gordon’s prime has passed.   These were sad events for me.   Used to be I would look forward to each of their next albums with baited breath.  In Tom’s case, I would have joined Tut inside the pyramid if I held my breath that long.   


After Merrimac County in 1972, there was Ladies Love Outlaws in 1974, which was, I think, a stab at a Nashville commercial chart hitter…..but I always felt it was over produced and Tom’s excellence got lost in it.   ”No Regrets“, one of his signature songs, was much better when it was first released on the Circle Game album juxtaposed with “Rockport Sunday“, his eloquent solo guitar companion piece.   (Footnote, it seems to me that when it was released on Classic Rush on Elektra, they reversed the order…..Rockport was first, No Regrets second, and on the Classic Rush album, the opposite occurred.  Tom, no doubt tinkering?)


Anyway, after his last Columbia release, there were a couple of recordings in the early 80′s that I unearthed in the Folk section of now defunct Tower Records and Ebay.   Also, a New Years special I taped off of PBS in 1980, but nothing else until the Very Best of Tom Rush  which is quite a nice compilation of the Prestige, Elektra and Columbia years.  A new one, “River Song“, appeared at the very end and knocked my socks clean off.    (It has become my wife’s and my courtin’ song)    It was like an old friend coming home.   But that was all she (or he, in this case) wrote.


Not that Tom wasn’t busy doing this or that, but musically, I lost him.   Until the Internet.   (Thanks Al?) 

One fine day, I found him and his website (circa 2000 and loose change?)    I was sitting around playing www dot fill in name here dot com and there he was.   On a lark, I emailed him and asked him the equivalent of “whassup” and when might he be coming to Phoenix.    Amazingly, he emailed back.   And said, he didn’t know.   But if someone was interested, let them know to contact him.   Cool, I thought.   Who do I know?   Big fat hairy nobody.  


But I was on his mailing list and over the ensuing years, found his humorous live collection Trolling for Owls and I got hold of a 6 song cassette “work in progress” that he released in limited supply and I then wore out.  (One day it unraveled and became ‘one’ with my previous car’s cassette player for eternity.)     But that is where I first heard “All A Man Can Do” .     Which now makes its appearance on the brand new , What I Know, Tom’s first major studio album in all those intervening years, and which was just released this week. 

Tom doesn’t write much.   When he does, he gives birth to monster songs… “No Regrets” or the “River Song“.    He is a very literate fellow and usually goes deep when he writes.   The cheerful exceptions to the rule are found here in What I Know …….his latest songs are far less introspective and far more joyful.   And unself-conscious.   Listen to ”Silly Little Diddle” and “What I Know”, and the concert opener “Hot Tonight” and ”One Good Man“   “River Song” makes a reprise appearance here with a different arrangement……(and again, like “No Regrets” back in 1974, he got “River Song” right the first time in 1999.  But its such a great song, it lives well here.  I just like the crescendo bridge in the first version and the way he delivers the hook line towards the end of the song.  But what do I know? 

Tom’s amazing ear and talent for interpretation of other artists’ material is legendary.  For the uninitiated, Tom recorded James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell, long before the world knew anything about them.   And his song selections over his career have been delightful.   This album is no exception.    It sneaks up on you.    You hear it the first two times and are pleased.   You hear it again, and something gets in underneath you, and then you start to hear the whole thing.   Not with your ears so much as your spirit.   The phrasing, both guitar and vocal are classic Tom Rush.   (Which is why he is so good as a solo act, he communicates intricate things with voice and strings).    He makes ”Drift Away”, the Dobie Gray standard sound like a Tom Rush song.  As familiar as it is, you hear it differently.   The more you listen to it, the more distinctive it becomes.   And its the sparest arrangement on the album (just guitar and cello).   


The fine accompaniment on this album manages to avoid overproduction.   I was tickled to find Rush veterans Trevor Veitch and Robin Batteau making appearances on the album, and the other assembled musicians are all top notch.  He jokes about the sax and steel together on “What An Old Lover Knows but the instruments work just fine.   “Lonely”  the Mishka Frith reggae classic is amazing…..I didn’t know I knew the song until several listenings.   Tom’s interpretations are that distinctive and this is a truly wonderful rendition.   When I hear “You’re Not Here With Me”, I feel the same things in my spirit that I felt when I heard “Wind on the Water” from his Merrimac County album.   On this album, Tom found me.   Got right through the crust and right in my spirit.   That’s what he always did, with his songs or those he interprets, and its quite amazing that he can still do it.   Because we have all changed.   Or have we?   


You are in for a treat if you are a longtime fan like me, because this is an outstanding album.   If you are new to Tom Rush…I envy you.   You have years of music to discover.    But listen to this a dozen times or so first…..don’t miss any of the nuances.    Its worth sipping slowly.       In this season of being confronted with life’s impermanence and the inevitable fading of hopes and dreams, it is quite extraordinary to have this gift appear, as though no time has passed at all.   In ”Too Many Memories” (with Emmylou Harris doing harmony vocals), the writer defines growing old as replacing hope with regret.   


What I Know … that we can thank Tom Rush for putting that notion on hold for awhile.