Tom Paxton,
The TVD Interview

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]

Really?

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.

You’ve stuck to your guns on that throughout the career, shying away from overproduction, even on your new album. 

What I like is for the song to shine. You can have huge production and come up with wonderful music, for example, like Sgt. Pepper. But for me, the best always is the simplest.

Do you feel that there’s still a place for the kind of topical songs you’re known for? It seems like many people today are trying their best to forget what’s going on in the world rather than being reminded of it. 

I think that’s perceptive of you. I agree. But I think people… look, I have nothing against people wanting to make a lot of money in show business. And obviously, you don’t make a lot of money writing topical songs. But I do miss the involvement in the world that my generation had. I’m very reluctant to come off like an old fart; I really don’t want to put myself against the younger generation. I think the younger generation has some brilliant musicians and there’s no problem there… except times are different.

Things were happening in [the ‘60s and ‘70s] that were directly affecting everybody: Civil rights, Vietnam… so it was natural for more people to be involved, artistically, with what was going on than they are now. I mean, things like Afghanistan and Iraq seem very, very far away. We don’t have a draft any more, it’s all volunteers, so it’s easy for people to turn their heads. But when you see the instant reaction of everybody to this business in Indiana, you see that people can still be reached.

Just reached in a different way. People look more towards technology to convey messages and the things that they are feeling—as opposed to music.

Yeah—right. It’s much easier to tweet, although I still don’t know how you do that. It’s easier than to write a whole song, isn’t it? [Laughs]

You’ve played a lot of live dates this year in what is widely publicized as your last tour. How are you feeling about it now that the end is a little more in sight?

I feel terrific, and I feel like I’ve made the right decision. I will go on until the middle of November before I stop, but I know I’ve made the right decision. I’m not retiring. I will still perform; I just won’t go three or four at a clip like I’m doing, or two at a clip. I think it’s time for me to stop doing that. It’s been fifty-five years; I think I’ve made my point. [Laughs] Whatever my point was, anyhow, I think I’ve made it!

You’ve known Janis Ian for a long time, so what has it been like to be out on the road with her on this tour?

Oh, it’s a ball! I love Janis. She’s a little toughie; she’s been through a great deal and survived it, and she’s still her own, determined self. She’s also a sucker for my jokes, so we get along beautifully. Backstage… we hang out. She’s a joy to be with; she’s nobody’s fool, and I like that!

You definitely seem to attract like minds to your creative endeavors. From what I’ve read, you sound like two peas in a pod.

Yeah, it’s funny… we really are quite different as artists and writers. But my people seem to love her and her people seem to love me as well. It’s an unusual pairing, but it works like a charm.

And she sounds so wonderful on the title track of your new album, Redemption Road. One of the things that struck me almost immediately is that the songs reflect as much optimism as regret or nostalgia. Do you feel like Redemption Road is a kind of microcosm of your experiences up to this point in your life?

Well, I do! These are the kinds of things, Jen, that kind of emerge. I didn’t sit down and plan a valedictory album or anything like that. I don’t have any plans for this to be the last album I do.

I do think that theme is kind of naturally present in a lot of the things I’m writing right now. The album really kind of found its own shape.

And you’ve had a lot happen in the last year or so. I think most people would think of your music as being generally upbeat, and the way that you write and the images that you create and they lyrics on this album—there’s a poignancy that feels a little different for you, and I was very moved by it.

Well, that’s kind of you. Of course, the elephant in the room is that I lost my wife last June. That has informed everything I’ve done since then. I miss my wife more than I can say… she was my editor, she was my best friend and my guiding star. It’s hard to go on without her.

I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you…

That’s okay—you didn’t upset me! It’s just a fact.

I’m very glad that this isn’t going to be your last album, and you’re not stopping, and you’re forging ahead—

Oh, God, no! How could I stop writing songs? I’m too big a ham not to get up and perform. Ever since the second grade in Chicago when I played Uncle Sam, and my classmates applauded and I thought, I like the sound of that, I’ve been a performer ever since. It used to kind of embarrass me to admit that, but I am what I am. I love to perform and I’ll never stop; I’m just not going on the road anymore.

Going back a little bit to how you record and how you prefer your music, we are curious to hear your opinion on the resurgence of the vinyl format, now that people are buying more records than they have in almost twenty-five years.

It puzzles me! [Laughs] I know that my pal Dave Van Ronk much preferred vinyl; he never really warmed to digital. He was an analog guy, and said there was a warmth in analog that he never heard in digital. I frankly admit that my ears are not that sensitive; I don’t hear the difference the way that some do.

But there seems to be a consensus that vinyl is a warmer medium than digital, and so I’m not really surprised; I’m only surprised by the range and depth of this music. It seems to be a real trend and not a bubble.

I see a lot of parallels in the resurgence in popularity of singer/songwriters; “warmth” is one word people might be looking for and finding in these artists, but maybe it’s more that what they are looking for something more tangible to affect them a certain way.

I’m kind of bewildered by technology myself. I was really rocked when I heard recently that the newer cars are coming out without CD players—only USB connections. [Laughs] I got totally blown away by this! I wanted to quit, throw up my hands! And now we’re all going to be buying turntables again, apparently. When do we finally get there? That’s what I want to know! [Laughs]

Do you remember the first record you bought?

I remember buying a Burl Ives record; I don’t remember what it was, but it was on a 45. I was fourteen or fifteen or something. I had one of those record players where you could stack up six or seven 45s. Then it was all about 33-1/3 long playing albums and reel-to-reel, and that was the be all and end all—nothing could be better than that! Then cassettes came along, then yadda, yadda, yadda! Now we’re back! Are these new discs 33-1/3?

Yeah, they are.

They’re the same, huh? That’s amazing. [Laughs] Here it comes again!

One last question for you Tom: dozens and dozens of artists have covered your songs. If you could have any one of those people come out with you and sing the song they covered, who would it be?

Oh, Johnny Cash. He recorded “I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound” on one of his last albums. Boy, would I love to have him on tour with me. Think of the stories, my goodness!

Tom Paxton’s Redemption Road, his 62nd album, is available now.

Tom Paxton Official | Facebook | Tour
PHOTO: MICHAEL G. STEWART

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