Saturday night's performance at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall is billed as "An evening with Tom Rush celebrating his twenty-fifth year in music Club 47 style."
Remember Club 47?
Not to worry. Tom Rush remembers it well.
"The club was a place where a young fellow like myself could go and listen to bluesman Sleepy John Estes and then get on stage the next night and try to remember how he did his songs," says Rush, 44, recalling his first encounter with the burgeoning folk music scene in Cambridge, Mass.
As a Harvard undergraduate, Rush played the guitar and loved folk music, though he admits he didn't know much about it at the time. He began frequenting coffeehouses, and eventually began to perform, excited by the music and convinced he'd never make much of a living with an English Lit degree.
"I kind of fell into it," he says. "In fact, I didn't realize that I was a professional musician until about 15 years into my career. Then it dawned on me -- my God, this is what I really do."
Of course, by then, the mid-'70s, if Rush needed proof of his place in folk music there was plenty of it. In the '60s he made several excellent, even innovative recordings for Prestige and Elektra. The recordings he later made for Columbia were far less consistent, but the best of them continued to showcase his gentle yet sturdy tenor voice and his natural affinity for folk and blues.
Along the way Rush also earned a reputation for spotting the talent of songwriters early in their careers, recording songs by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Jackson Browne well before they became widely known.
Even now, though, when Rush looks back on how it all began for him, Club 47 looms large. "It was a place where music was passed from generation to generation and it was also a meeting ground for a lot of different kinds of musicians and their audiences.
"We're using the name of Club 47 now in the same spirit. You're going to hear at the Kennedy Center Emmylou Harris , Peter Rowan and Tom Rush -- established artists that hopefully you know you're going to like. But you're also going to hear some of the most exciting musicians of a younger generation Mark O'Connor, Nanci Griffith, Buskin and Batteau, Bill Morrissey and Robert Keen .
"I don't know why I'm making a career out of putting people on stage with me who steal the show," Rush adds with a laugh. "But it's very exciting for me to provide a way for these artists to play in front of the kind of crowd they deserve."
Perhaps more than ever, Rush now seems content with his life in music. After touring for five years straight in the '70s, he retired from show business "for about nine months" and moved to New Hampshire, where he now lives with his wife Beverly and a couple of kids on a 600-acre farm. He has since restricted his performances to about 40 dates a year, mostly on the East Coast, a schedule that allows time "to play family man and putter around the garden."
New Hampshire represented where "the action wasn't," a welcome and calming oasis for Rush, but now he says a healthy and manageable portion of the action has finally caught up with him. With the help of some students from the Harvard business school and Boston University, he began examining the marketplace for his own music, and the research prompted him to play Symphony Hall in Boston (the first of several sold-out performances there) and later to start his own record label, Night Light Recordings.
"What I've come to realize is that the folk artist has a serious marketing problem vis-a -vis the major labels," he explains, sounding a bit like an MBA himself. "The majors are very good at selling rock 'n' roll to teen-agers, and country music to a country music audience. But they don't have a handle on selling folk music to the folk audience. Which is not to say there is not a folk audience, because there definitely is. We've just sold out three shows in advance at Symphony Hall."
Rush has released two Symphony Hall concert recordings on his own label so far -- "New Year" and "Late Night Radio" -- and hopes to eventually record other artists as well, a prospect that clearly excites him. He also finds it heartening that so many independent labels have flourished in recent years.
"Innovation in music has always been done on small labels," he says. "Rock 'n' roll was pioneered by Vanguard, Elektra . . . and Folkways. Even punk and new wave were pioneered by little labels like Sugar Hill and various imports. The majors aren't interested in innovation. They're interested in merchandising. The problem has become very serious for emerging artists because they can't get a major deal these days."
As for his own career, Rush thinks his musical curiosity and versatility help account for his longevity. He points out that in the beginning all of his contemporaries specialized in one genre or another -- blues, Appalachian ballads, Woody Guthrie tunes.
"I shopped around and did a little of each. It's kept life interesting for me and I think interesting for my audience, too," he says. "Unlike the so-called ' '60s folk singers,' nostalgia doesn't have much to do with my music. In fact, most of my audiences want to hear the newer songs. I guess if my career has a peak it would have to be now, because I'm playing for more people now than I ever did."