Tom Rush first sang at Symphony Hall in 1958. He was a junior at Groton School then, and it was part of a glee-club gathering under the auspices of the New England Preparatory School Chorus. “What we sang is lost in the mists of time,” he says.
Even as young adult, the experience was worth remembering, but Rush had no idea that Symphony Hall would eventually help cement his legacy as one of New England’s most revered and influential folk-blues musicians.
In 1981, nearly two decades removed from his halcyon years as a breakout star at Cambridge’s Club 47, Rush had an audacious idea. He staged the first of several concerts he would give at Symphony Hall over the next few years. The hallowed venue typically had been shuttered between Christmas and New Year’s, but Rush and Fenton Hollander, the show’s promoter, had persuaded its management to let Rush rent out the space.
“That first Symphony Hall show was a turning point because it definitely showed me that, yes, the audience was still there. If you find ways to connect with them, they will participate,” Rush says recently over lunch at a Thai restaurant around the corner from Symphony Hall. “I’ve come to realize over the years that the decision to go to a show has a lot to do with the setting. The artist plus the setting equal the experience, which is what people want.”
On Friday, Rush will resurrect that fabled run of shows with a return to Symphony Hall, capping a year that celebrated his 50th anniversary as a performer. This year’s edition, which is already sold out and will stream live for free on his website (www.tomrush.com), will feature several familiar faces: Nanci Griffith, Buskin & Batteau, Jonathan Edwards, guitarist Trevor Veitch, and a mystery guest. But it will also include a younger artist, Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Dom Flemons, who proves Rush’s appeal has trickled down to newer generations.
Flemons, who has never met Rush in person but gladly accepted the invite to join the roster, says Rush is something of an unsung figure in American music who should be known beyond his biggest hit, “No Regrets.”
“When I first started playing, I got into the ’60s folk revival, and Tom was a pivotal figure in Club 47’s history,” Flemons says. “With renewed interest in folk music, young people are constantly looking for artists beyond Dylan and Dave Van Ronk, people who aren’t the first ones you necessarily think about. Tom is one of those people who are finally getting their audience among younger people.”
Rush’s original run of Symphony shows were set up as a “Tom Rush and Friends” sort of evening, with Rush sharing the stage with star-studded lineups that ran the gamut from Joan Baez and Bo Diddley to Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris. That’s in line with Rush’s reputation for being beloved among his fellow musicians, not to mention respected for his early championing of artists such as Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Jackson Browne. (“He’s given voice to so many songwriters,” says Nanci Griffith. “I wouldn’t know who Joni Mitchell was if not for Tom Rush.”)
As a sign of the times, Rush financed this year’s Symphony show with a Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $141,000, far more than the initial goal of $100,000. The range of services purchased went from $10 for a signed guitar pick all the way up to $10,000, which earned one supporter a table for five in the VIP section for the Symphony Hall show, the privilege for two members of that party to join the band onstage for the finale, an “associate producer” credit in the program, and a slew of other rewards.
Robin Batteau, who as a member of Buskin & Batteau had joined Rush at the Symphony shows in the ’80s, remembers those evenings as a salute to the folk community that had nurtured Rush, dating back to his time at Club 47 (now known as Club Passim).
“When you have a gathering of the clan like that — when you have people celebrating the spirit of the music that Tom did, which was all about self-discovery and the discovery of other songwriters — you get up there and you play and everybody feels like they’re 19 years old again.”
The second year’s show, which PBS broadcast nationally (in conjunction with WGBH), featured Harris, who was especially resplendent in a duet of “Louisiana Eyes” alongside Rush. He tells a humorous story about getting her on the lineup.
“I called Emmylou’s manager and asked if she would be my guest at Symphony Hall,” Rush remembers. “He said, ‘She’s on the other line. Let me put you on hold.’ He put me on hold and came back and said, ‘Well, she says you’re one of the two men in the world she can’t say no to.’ And I said, ‘Can I rephrase the question?’ ”
Rush acknowledges that the Symphony performances revitalized his career. In the early ’80s, he was at a crossroads. He didn’t have a major-label contract at the time, and his last studio album, “Ladies Love Outlaws,” had been released in 1974. Rush had often performed in Boston around Christmastime, but one year he wasn’t able to sell out a two-night stand at the Paradise Rock Club.
“It was a transitional time, for me and the whole industry,” Rush says. “Record labels were floundering because the baby boomers weren’t buying their records anymore. They were making records for kids. The baby boom really built the music industry by buying a lot of records. Then the baby boomers got older, and the record companies kept focusing on a particular age group, and they let the baby boomers basically walk out of the room.”
“I was without a major record deal, and it was still at the point where if you didn’t have a record deal, you didn’t exist,” he adds. “The record companies got you on the radio, and that sold concert tickets for you. I had an audience, and I didn’t buy this argument that the audience didn’t exist anymore.”
They’ve stayed with him for another three decades, but even then Rush realized the scale of another Symphony event was a financial gamble.
“To be honest, it’s been a long time since I’ve done a show like this, and if I were a promoter, I’d be skeptical,” Rush says. “If you could talk me into it at all, I would want a pretty good deal on it. It’s a substantial risk. I was gratified that [the Kickstarter campaign] did as well as it did. Apparently it was the fifth most successful music campaign.”
Rush, who will turn 72 in February, says he’ll take the stage on Friday as a different kind of performer.
“I bring 30 more years of experience and hard-earned lessons,” Rush says. “I never thought when I started out that I’d be doing this for any length of time. I figured I’d get a real job pretty soon. I’m still keeping my options open, but I’m pretty unemployable at this point.”