N ow that Tom Rush has turned 80 — and survived a bout of COVID-19 — fans might give him a pass if all he wanted to do was perform time-tested material. But the Portsmouth native has been dropping a lot of new songs into his setlists these days.
It’s a fresh turn from a musician who’s spent most of the last 60 years performing traditional folk and blues tunes and interpreting the work of other songwriters.
Rush, who performs at Tupelo Music Hall in Derry on Friday, wrote 10 of the 12 songs for his most recent release, 2018’s “Voices.”
“The other two are traditional folk songs because I didn’t want to compromise my folk singer credentials,” the singer and guitarist said during a recent interview. “But that has never happened before. I’ve always done two or three of my own and mainly other people’s songs. And for whatever reason, that has shifted.”
Rush has been busy writing during the pandemic and has another batch of songs ready to record.
“I don’t know where it’s coming from, but songs keep popping up. I’ve never been able to write a song on purpose,” he said. “I can’t sit down and write you a song about something. They just kind of happen. And I find the less I interfere with the process, the better they are.”
Before Rush resumed touring this year, he debuted some of his new songs online through his subscription series, “Rockport Sundays,” which he offers for $10 to $100 a month.
“I call it Rockport Sundays because I was living in Rockport, Massachusetts, at the time, said Rush, who now lives in Kittery, Maine. “And every Sunday I would put up a different song.”
He offers a sample of those performances at tomrush.com with “Nothin’ But a Man,” a bluesy original on which he’s accompanied by keyboardist and singer Matt Nakoa, who will back him at the Tupelo show. The song features tight vocal harmonies, slide guitar and playful lyrics.
One of Rush’s friends said she appreciated the sexual innuendo.
“And I thought, innuendo implies a certain amount of subtlety. I got to work harder,” Rush said.
While Rush has been contemplating recording the new album in Nashville to take advantage of the world-class musicians there, he’s leaning toward producing a stripped-down version first.
“I might actually make this album at the kitchen table, kind of like ‘Rockport Sundays.’ Just do it informal, just me and my guitar. And maybe (Nakoa), who is my uber-talented accompanist, who has his own career gig.”
Deep folk roots
Rush began releasing albums in the early ’60s at the beginning of the folk movement. On his 1968 album “The Circle Game,” he covered songs by a few young singer-songwriters who later would become household names: James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell, who penned the title track.
The album also featured two Rush compositions, most notably “No Regrets,” a song that would become widely covered over the years.
“The Walker Brothers in England put my first two kids through college with their version of it so I’m fond of that one,” Rush said. “But it’s been curious how different they are. Emmylou Harris has a very pretty version. And I think it’s probably off of her recording that Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings learned the song. Then there was a hip-hop version that I didn’t even recognize.”
U2 lead singer Bono was so fond of the Walker Brothers version that he started singing the chorus of “No Regrets” at the end of the U2 song “Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own” during the band’s shows.
“They kept doing that for quite a while. And I saw an extra zero on my royalty statement that year,” Rush said.
Rush’s “Rockport Sundays” helped pay the bills when concert venues were shut down. While he plans to continue offering the online mini-shows, he’s happy to be playing again for live audiences.
“It’s getting crazy busy. All the shows that were postponed are coming due all at once. I’m going out to the Midwest soon to do five in a row,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to the Tupelo show coming up.”
When the Derry music venue began offering live shows again last month, it also began requiring patrons to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.
“I’m thinking more and more venues are going that way. The tide is turning very quickly. I am hoping it encourages people to come out and feel safe at the shows,” Rush said.
Rush battled COVID-19 in March 2020 just as the pandemic hit the United States.
“I’ve now had three Pfizer shots so I’m pretty much superhuman at this point,” he said. “I never got hospitalized, but I spent two weeks — five days feeling worse, five days feeling really crummy, five days getting better — and then it was over.”
He also has a new pacemaker. He began wearing a heart monitor after experiencing palpitations. When it recorded his heart rate dropping to 23 beats a minute, his doctor ordered emergency surgery.
“A nurse in the cardiac unit said, ‘Yeah we seem to have quite a lot of COVID survivors.’ This was back when not many people had gotten COVID. So I think it was COVID related, but I can’t prove it.”
In addition to the Tupelo show, Rush has a gig scheduled for Oct. 10 at the Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center in Plymouth on a bill with guitarist Leo Kottke.
“That one is going to be one of my Club 47 shows, which is a reference to a coffee house I played at when I was just starting out,” said Rush, who got his start at the Cambridge venue as a student at Harvard University. At Club 47, the upstart folk musicians got to mingle and learn from Black blues musicians like Jesse Fuller, Sleepy John Estes and Bukka White who were booked to play there.
“It was a little incongruous. A bunch of Harvard students sitting around singing about how rough it was on the chain gang,” Rush said. “But we felt that we made up in sincerity what we lacked in authenticity.”