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January 13, 2015


Legendary singer/songwriter readies for post-touring phase
with March 10 Pax Records release, tour with Janis Ian,
induction into Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame

MALEXANDRIA, Va. — Like countless young adults who fell in love with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton headed to Greenwich Village in the early ’60s, just in time to join Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez and other troubadours who took over coffeehouse stages — and took on the world. Paxton has been raising his rich voice in song ever since, carrying on the folk tradition with passion, wit and grace.

And the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner is far from ready to call it quits, though he is planning to leave the traveling life behind. But first, he’ll celebrate the March 10, 2015 release of his 62nd (or so) album, Redemption Road; launch a two-month tour with Janis Ian on March 4; and head to his hometown of Bristow, Okla., for his March 14 induction into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. He’ll also run across the pond in May for several U.K. dates, and likely keep stage-hopping through 2015. And after that … well, after that, maybe he’ll finally get around to turning his “Back in the Day” website recollections into a book, or posting more “Short Shelf-life Songs,” or giving himself more opportunities to kick back with a midday movie, as he was doing one recent rainy afternoon before hitting “pause” to discuss his latest work.

Paxton and producer Jim Rooney recorded Redemption Road (on Paxton’s Pax Records) at the Butcher Shop in Nashville, which made it easy to recruit a stellar gang of supporting players. The list includes Al Perkins on dobro, Tim Crouch on fiddle and mandolin, frequent collaborator Geoff Bartley on National steel guitar, Kirk “Jellyroll” Johnson on harmonica and executive producer Cathy Fink on banjo and harmonies. Janis Ian contributes harmony to the title tune; John Prine takes a verse on “ Skeeters’ll Gitcha.”

Asked how that came about, Paxton says he and Prine, a Nashville resident, go way back, so he simply picked up the phone. “If he called me, I’d be there in a heartbeat,” Paxton says. “That’s what friends are for. To sing a verse in a silly song.”

Like most folk musicians, Paxton loves a fun, “silly” song just as much as he loves a pointed political statement or a love song, and Redemption Road contains some of each, along with one traditional, the Celtic prayer, “The Parting Glass.”

That one, which ends the album, sounds like a benediction; the collection itself seems like a coda of sorts. “I think anything that one does at this point in life is bound to have an element of coda to it. That’s kind of inescapable,” says Paxton, 77. “There’s certainly more to look back at than ahead to.” But he’s quick to note that that most of them are not autobiographical, even if they sound like it.
“When I’m writing a so-called confessional song, in my mind, I’m writing it for all of us,” he explains. “Tom Paxton is only a minor character in the first-person singular songs. It’s very seldom that it’s myself and myself alone that I’m writing about. I’m really writing in a Walt Whitman kind of impersonal ‘I.’”

In fact, he avoided singing “Central Square,” a one-who-got-away story, for years because he knew people would assume it was about him. The mid-tempo ballad is one of his favorites, however. “I think a lot of people, particularly of my generation, can identify with the protagonist in the song,” he notes. “We make those big personal mistakes when we’re young and rash.”

“Time To Spare,” featuring Susie Ragsdale’s harmony vocal, also conveys a bittersweet nostalgia for those years when the world seems full of possibilities and we still believe every dream can come true.

“It’s a song about coming to terms with the way it is — without turning your back on the way you thought it would be,” Paxton says. It’s followed by “The Losing Part,” which examines the aftermath once those dreams have withered. Though he wrote it several years ago, he had never recorded it. He’s not sure why, but perhaps it, like the title song, needed to find its time. Both certainly take on more poignancy since he lost his wife of nearly 51 years in June.

“’Redemption Road’ is a very elegiac song,” he says. “There is an element of final chapters about it. An element of ‘things have finally settled.’” Paxton wrote the lyrics — actually, he characterizes it as more like taking dictation than writing — after hearing the Bartley-penned instrumental and asking if he could put words to the music.

He revisits his Oklahoma heritages in “Buffalo Dreams,” a gentle ballad in which “women stand in doorways looking southward, while old men lie and dream their buffalo dreams.” Blown aloft by wistful harmonica notes, those dreams float on fiddle, banjo and dobro strings through the vast plains he describes as “hundreds of miles of hundreds of miles.” The song, Paxton says, reminds him of a Georgia O’Keefe painting. It’s a fitting bit of imagery; Redemption Road is full of them.

“Virginia Morning,” another ode to geography, is such a lovely tribute to his adopted state, it’s destined for tourism commercials. And “Ireland,” with sparkling lines such as “Arlo was on the stage when I slipped in and took your hand,” paints a love story so vivid, a woman nearly accosted him after a show to say it was a good thing he gave it the ending he did, or else … well, he doesn’t know what else, exactly. But he says with a laugh, “Thank God I made the right decision.”

Dave Van Ronk gets an even bigger nod than Arlo in “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” which, appropriately, follows the album’s most political tune, “If the Poor Don’t Matter,” which combines jazz and reggae inflections with a full-on talkin’ blues section, in fine folk tradition.

But the lighthearted ditty “Susie Most of All” is his favorite Redemption Road track, because, he says, it was so much fun to write.

“I was looking for that kind of freedom of association, a jump-rope rhyme feeling … with nonsense verses that somehow mean something. Otherwise, how could I possibly excuse ‘English muffin, Texas toast?’” he says with a laugh, citing its bready references. “I stand by that verse till the day I die. That’s why I love that song. It is deeply carefree.”

When his interviewer suggests those sound like terms of endearment, he responds, “Oh, I like that. That’s good.”

Maybe he can try them on the next semi-confrontational female fan. But it’s likely he won’t have to. Because anyone who can turn a song into something that gives us joy or sorrow, anger or pleasure; that can ignite our passion or soothe our angst — that can make us feel or think so deeply —14 times over, and repeat the feat over 62 albums, obviously knows how to keep his listeners happy. Connecting us to one another through music is what being a folk singer is all about, and for generations now, Paxton has shown us just how well that job can be done.

Good thing he’s not ready to ride off into an Oklahoma sunset just yet. He may be leaving the road life behind, but Paxton will keep the folk flame burning — and hold the torch up high — as long as he’s got songs to sing. And he assures there’s plenty more where these came from.

We can’t wait to hear what’s next.

U.S. tour dates:
Thu., Jan. 15 SEATTLE, WA The Triple Door; with Kate Power & Steve Einhorn
Fri., Jan. 16 PORTLAND, OR Alberta Rose Theatre; with Kate Power & Steve Einhorn
Sat., Jan. 17 FLORENCE, OR Winter Folk Festival
Fri., Feb. 27 ALBANY, NY The Egg, Swyer Theater

March-April dates with Janis Ian

Wed., Mar. 4 SOUTH ORANGE, NJ South Orange Performing Arts Center
Thu., Mar. 5 TARRYTOWN, NY Tarrytown Music Hall
Fri., Mar. 6 NEW YORK, NY City Winery
Sat., Mar. 7 PATCHOGUE , NY Patchogue Theatre
Sun., Mar. 8 MONROE TOWNSHIP, NJ Richard P. Marasco Center for the Performing Arts
Wed.-Thu., Mar. 18-19 MINNEAPOLIS, MN The Dakota
Fri., Mar. 20 STOUGHTON, WI Stoughton Opera House
Sun., Mar. 22 CHICAGO, IL Old Town School of Folk Music
hu., Apr. 9 PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL Ponte Vedra Concert Hall
Fri., Apr. 10 VERO BEACH, FL Emerson Center
Sat., Apr. 11 FORT LAUDERDALE, FL Broward Center for the Performing Arts
Sun., Apr. 12 WEST PALM BEACH, FL Kravis Center -- Gosman Amphitheatre
Mon., Apr. 13 CLEARWATER, FL Capitol Theatre
Wed., Apr. 22 SANTA CRUZ, CA Rio Theatre
Thu., Apr. 23 NAPA, CA City Winery
Fri., Apr. 24 GRASS VALLEY, CA The Center for the Arts
Sat., Apr. 25 BERKELEY , CA Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse