Sweet ballads, gritty blues, great storytelling and rib-aching laughter are sure to fill the State Theatre as American folk and blues singer-songwriter, musician and recording artist Tom Rush brings his show for a performance in State College.
Since his debut as a folk and blues musician on the Boston music scene in 1962, Rush has established himself as a consummate performer. To each of his performances, he brings his distinctive guitar style, conversational baritone vocals, relaxed charm and wry humor — encompassing all phases of his career.
Rush, who was born in Portsmouth and raised in Concord, N.H., where his father taught at St. Paul’s School, had a rough start with music. As a child, he was told by his parents to take piano lessons, which became a very unhappy experience for him.
“It was a gruesome exercise for everybody, especially the teacher,” he said. “I reduced her to tears on many occasions.”
But he had an older cousin who taught him how to play the ukulele, which for Rush was the beginning of the realization that music could actually be fun. He switched to a baritone ukulele at age 14, then eventually turned to guitar.
“I had a lot of fun with it, but I never did learn to play it properly,” he said. “I think playing it improperly in an interesting way served me well. The good thing about the guitar is that it’s easy to start having fun quickly. The piano takes years, and the violin takes years. But with the ukulele or guitar, you learn three chords and you can play 90 percent of the songs ever written.”
Rush began his music career in the early 1960s, playing Boston-area clubs while attending Harvard University.
“In the ’60s there was a lot of good music going on,” he said.
He regularly played at The Club 47, which brought in old-timers and legends.
“You could go and literally sit at the feet of Maybelle Carter or Sleepy John Estes or Bill Monroe,” Rush said. “It was absolutely mind-boggling for us kids to be able to hang out with these people and steal their chords and learn stuff from them.”
Rush hit a rough period when he was looking for new material and had run out of traditional folk songs. He wasn’t finding any songs that excited him, until one day he met Joni Mitchell at a little club in Detroit, where she performed a set.
“She just blew me away, and I got her to send me a tape,” he said. “She had just started writing songs, and so I asked her if she had any more. She went home and wrote some more and sent me a tape.”
On that tape was “The Circle Game” and other songs Mitchell sang at the club that very first night. Rush recorded three of Mitchell’s songs and named the album after “The Circle Game,” which was released in 1968.
Rush was credited by Rolling Stone magazine with ushering in the era of the singer-songwriter and performed his own compositions while getting exposure for others early in their careers. He sang songs by Mitchell, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Murray McLauchlan, David Wiffen and William Hawkins.
“I had just met James Taylor, who was on his way to England,” Rush said. “He sang some songs for me, and I put two of his on the album. I didn’t meet Jackson Browne, but he was being published by Elektra; so I had demos from Jackson. I did one or two of his songs on the album. So I think the fact that these three unknown songwriters were all debuted on the same album got people’s attention. That’s why Rolling Stone said that I helped introduce the singer-songwriter era.”
His styles range from blues to traditional folk to country, but his unique style fuses all of his influences together.
Having met and toured with many musicians over the years, Rush has some interesting stories to tell along with the new songs he’ll bring to the State Theatre — in addition to the old favorites.
“I figured out early on that if people like you, they are much more apt to like the song you are about to play,” he said. “So I would start telling people about the song and where it came from. And that kind of grew into just talking about whatever — stories about New Hampshire or stories about my old car, or stories about my teenage daughter. People seem to enjoy that part of it. They laugh, they cry — I stretch them in every direction I can.”
To be able to make a good living doing something you love to do is a real gift, and after a 50-plus year career, Rush knows this as well as anyone in the music business.
“The time on stage is what it’s all about — that makes it all worthwhile,” he said. “I know so many people who don’t like their jobs and can’t wait to retire. I can’t see myself ever retiring, as long as I can do a proper job of it.”