Legendary singer-songwriter Tom Paxton in is in the midst of his final tour, promoting his latest album Redemption Road. At the ripe old age of 77, he has decided that after he completes his U.S. tour and a final U.K. tour, that it’s enough. Of course a lot of performers say that, only to hit the road with comeback tours. But in a recent conversation, Paxton told me that the pace of touring is exhausting, and although he’s still planning on traveling to perform, he insists that once the show is over, he’ll return home, and quite gladly.
I interviewed Paxton in connection with the release of Redemption Road, which he produced independently, funding the production and promotion via a Kickstarter. I asked Paxton why he decided on the indie route. “The whole business of recording on a label is sort of past,” he said. “Scraping whatever money is available to do the album, then there’s nothing left to promote it. This is not the same business as when I started out. There were Elektra and other labels, and back then there was money to produce the album and promote it. That no longer exists. [Going the independent, Kickstarter route] I get to control it. A fair exchange that wouldn’t happen if it were on a label. I pay for the production and the promotion.” It is certainly a better deal (author’s note: much the same sort of comments might be said about the publishing industry as well).
Full disclosure: Tom Paxton has been one of the most profound influences both on my own musical tastes and performance style. His clear, gentle notes and simple, but elegant, picking style sing to us in so many, varied voices: wistful narrative ballads that explore the troubles of everyday living, the whimsical children’s songs that have been passed down, now, several generations, love songs that can bring tears, and profound songs of protest that can fire up anger or send chills down the spine, even 45 years later.
One such song is the emotionally stirring “Jimmy Newman,” which I first heard on the double album The Compleat Tom Paxton years ago. From within the point of view of a nameless wounded solider about to be evacuated from a war zone, we listen to his increasing despair as he slowly realizes his close friend and comrade is not wounded by dead. The song, which was written during the Vietnam war, is still relevant today, and can still bring tears to my eyes.
“There was a guy,” explained Tom, recalling the reaction he’d gotten from the song back then. “He wrote to me from a VA hospital. He’d been wounded. He was writing to tell me he’d experienced it himself, the only difference being that unlike in the song, Jimmy Newman was not the close friend of the song’s narrator.” He’d found the song so evocative, that he was compelled to write the songwriter. “It was a powerful moment,” Paxton recalls.
I asked Paxton where he finds his inspiration after all these years and all those songs.
“I’ve thought a lot about that,” he told me. “The answer is that you learn to look outside yourself. I’m not writing about Tom Paxton, except by inference. I look outside at the world around.”
“Whenever a young songwriter asks for advice,” he continued, “I tell them: look around you; pick up a newspaper, write a song from the point of view of an eyewitness. You will document it for the world. I gotta tell you: Tom Paxton, not a very interesting guy. Not a lot happens to Tom Paxton that is worthy of a song, meanwhile the world is exploding with song topics. I’m talking about simple songs as well, not anti-war, stuff. Like for example, you read something about a husband and a wife. Put yourself in their place and write about it. And you’re out there, like Shakespeare said ‘holding the mirror up to the world.'”
The new album is no less evocative than any of the many others Paxton has produced in his long career. The cover track, “Redemption Road,” performed with Janis Ian (who has joined Paxton on tour), was written from a tune by Jeff Bartley in 2009. It is a look back at a life lived. “Come redemption, my old friend, when the seeds of life are sowed.”
“Virginia Morning,” the album’s first track can be almost an anthem for the brutal winter we’ve just experienced. As Paxton noted, “The Winter from Hell!” But the song, which observes the emergence of spring in Virginia, is also about the wonderful feeling of returning home, to the safety of familiar ground.
It’s a perfect first track for what is in many ways a reflective album. I wondered if there had been a concept of this sort of reflectiveness when putting the album together. “There was no conscious shape formed for the album,” Paxton explained. “This album isn’t a response to some conscious pull. I certainly felt there is a retrospective feeling, summing up. Passing judgement, perhaps. Definitely a sense of closer to the end than to the beginning. This isn’t an album I could have written 50 years ago,” he told me.
Although many the album’s tracks are reflective, many are also fun, upbeat, and even silly. “Susie Most of All,” a fun, upbeat song of love and friendship might be Paxton’s favorite track on the album.”Wish I had a nickel, wish I had a dime/Wish I had Susie, and Susie had time to play/Susie had time to play/The thing about Susie, Susie can play all day.”“Happiness guaranteed,” as the song says.
“Battle of the Sexes” is an amusing history of the war between men and women from Adam and Eve to Tony and Cleo, Samson and Delilah, George and Martha Washington, and beyond. Reminiscent of tall-tale folk songs like “I Was Born 10,000 Years Ago,” this is just flat out fun.
On “Skeeters’ll Getcha,” Paxton is joined by the great John Prine in this very singable love ditty. “Mayor of MacDougal Street” is a swingy memorial for folk-bluesman Dave Van Ronk and the Greenwich Village scene at the Gaslight back in the day.
But my Paxton favorites have always been his poetic ballads, and that’s also true of Redemption Road. “Time to Spare” is a bittersweet ballad of love, living, and loss. One of the most emotionally evocative tracks on the album. …the kind that Paxton does so well. It’s a look back on a long life always with time to spare until it doesn’t, seemingly in the blink of an eye. It tells of an entire generation of idealists who fell into love and family, responsibilities, careers, and living life, becoming passive participants almost without realizing it. “You were going to write your novel/I was going to be a star/We were young, and things were sure to work out right.”
“Central Square” is another beautiful ballad, this one about a road not taken. Paxton confessed that this may be among his favorites ever. “I saw the road that led to home, but I took another way/I met the girl I came to love one night in Central Square.”
The final track of the album’s 14 songs is the traditional “The Parting Glass.” I wondered it the song was a sort of fare-thee-well as Tom leaves the touring life behind. “Goodnight and joy be with you all,” it says. “The song was suggested by my daughter Jennifer for the closing track,” Paxton explained. He’s been closing sets with it for awhile (and it is a great closer), and it’s certainly fitting. But “The Parting Glass” is far from the end of the road for Tom Paxton’s career.
More songwriting, more albums, perhaps even a book might be in store now that he’d done with constantly being on the road. He simply intends to keep observing the world with his hyper keen eye and chronicling it for the rest of us. And although some of the topical songs may seem to have a short shelf life, if they are good songs, Paxton, noted, people will listen long after the presumed shelf-life has long passed. As he explained, “Our national anthem was a topical song. So are ‘The Ruben James,’ and ‘The Wreck of the Old ’97.” But we keep singing them I will sing a topical song when its a good song and its the truth and reminds of something we need to remember.”
Tom Paxton and Janis Ian continue their touring through July. You can find out dates and places on Paxton’s website.
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