Sixty years, thousands of concerts, five hundred and fifty-two Kickstarter backers later, and Tom Paxton released his sixty-second album in time for his final “big time” concert tour.
“Whatever my point was, anyhow,” says Paxton, “I think I’ve made it!” But the prospect of Tom Paxton running out of points to make seems just as impossible to his fans as it does to him. The iconoclastic folk hero may be leaving the weary road behind, but he’s far from stopping altogether.
His new album, Redemption Road, couldn’t be more aptly titled. It’s not so much that he’s written a thinly-veiled confessional as he is revisiting a musical life well lived through his signature stripped down, witty, reflective, political songwriting. With Redemption Road, the seventy-seven-year-old reflects on his travels, on his friends, and on why life remains so fun for him, despite its absurdities and pitfalls. Tom Paxton had a lot he wanted to say with Redemption Road, but it’s far from a collection of swan songs. Musician friends as varied as John Prine and Janis Ian lent their talents and their voices to Paxton’s musical snapshots, making the collection of songs on Redemption Road even more poignant.
When we talked with Tom, he was jovial and exuded a kind of happiness that comes naturally when one feels unyoked from obligations. Tom is living life on his own terms and loves every minute of it. Among many other things, Tom shared his thoughts with us about touring with old friend Janis Ian, continuing to create and perform in his golden years, and his delight and bewilderment about the resurgence of 33-1/3 records.
You’re regarded as one of the first folk artists to break away from performing traditional folk songs in favor of your own music. What does that legacy mean to you now?
It just seemed to me like a natural thing to do, to try to add to the [folk] legacy. Before me Woody Guthrie, of course, was the greatest writer of folk music in America and I really think I was picking his example and doing it in my own time. It just seemed a logical thing to do. I loved the music that I had learned—the traditional music—and I just wanted to make my own contribution.
I always admire artists that go their own way, especially when fellow artists are bewildered or outright hostile towards them. That you had the confidence in your own songs to break away from the tight-knit folk scene of the early ‘60s is hugely admirable.
You know, I’ve been asked many times—back when so many people in the ‘60s were going electric and going rock—why I didn’t do it. I think the real reason is that I didn’t think I’d be any good at it! [Laughs]
Yeah, I think I would have made a lousy rock singer. It never spoke to me. I loved The Beatles, and I still think The Beatles were one of the best things to happen in the twentieth century. But I didn’t have those kinds of chops. What I had was a love for simple songs, and I loved the sound of an acoustic guitar. I still would rather hear Doc Watson than just about anybody you could name. I think I was just following my instinct.