“I feel like I’m closing a circle,” Tom Paxton, one of America’s most iconic folk singers, reflects. “I’m looking forward to way off in the future, November 14, when I play in Alexandria, Virginia, at the Birchmere Theater, which is only ten minutes from my home. And then I’m going to stop touring forever.”
Winner of a 2009 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Paxton can point with pride to a career that dates back to the folk boom of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. On his new album, Redemption Road, the writer of such timeless classics as “Ramblin’ Boy” and “The Last Thing on My Mind” pays tribute to that seminal era in a song titled “The Mayor of Macdougal Street.” In the tune, he recalls the hallowed days of the Greenwich Village music scene, hanging out in the fabled Gaslight Cafe and watching legendary singer Dave Von Ronk — the best man at Paxton's wedding — hold court.
It’s one of several songs that conjure up Paxton’s dry-eyed reflection, an apt theme considering the fact that at age 77, Paxton is embarking on the final road trip of his career.
Paxton, however, is quick to clarify that he’s not ending his career. “I’m not retiring,” he insists. “That’s the caveat. I’m just going to stop touring. I’ll leave myself the option of doing the woodshop thing. So whenever I leave home to do something, I’ll come right back. I will still be doing my share, but not night after night.”
When asked what prompted his decision, Paxton doesn’t hedge words. “I’m tired,” he replies. “I’m tired of what it takes to tour. The day before yesterday, I was in three different airports. It just drains me. Even when we go by car, the distances can be overwhelming.
He’s also quick to mention that he still finds performing satisfying. “Once you get onstage, everything is fine,” he maintains. “People are glad to have you there, and they want to hear the music. Then everyone goes home and you go back to the hotel and collapse. The reality is that when I play the Birchmere in November, I will just have turned 78. And I think that’s enough."
That being the case, heartfelt sentiment wafts through Redemption Road. It shines through in the reflection of joys and discovery from decades past in the song “Time to Spare” or as a gentle lament in “The Losing Part." Tracks like “Ireland” and “Susie Most of All” conjure up a simple, sweet memory of a long-ago love. As always, Paxton complements those tender narratives with a deft touch and a supporting cast of musicians that includes special guests John Prine and Janis Ian, as well as a veritable who’s who of Nashville’s finest session players. On songs such as “Virginia Morning” and “Come On, Holy,” Paxton exudes complete contentment, and while bittersweet ballads compete for prime time, it’s the sound of a satisfied soul that most frequently comes to the fore.
“I wrote those songs from a first-person point perspective, but it’s seldom actually my own,” Paxton concedes. “It’s more like a Walt Whitmore poem. It’s not really autobiographical, but I do relate to these songs. And not with sadness. In fact, I’m feeling full-tilt these days. I’m having a wonderful time out here on the road with Janis Ian, whom I’ve known since she was 13. I was onstage with her the first time she sang a song in public. Little did I know this little squirt from New Jersey would grow up to become a pal.”
In a sense, the title of the new album seems piqued with irony. Paxton’s road has been well-traveled, given the fact he’s released more than 60 albums over the course of his career. Happily, he still finds plenty of inspiration, whether it’s in the need to pen a new protest song or in taking the opportunity to offer some sort of anecdote or observation.
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“I guess the world isn’t repeating itself,” Paxton replies when asked how he maintains a fresh perspective. “Stuff keeps happening that hasn’t happened before. And when it comes to writing personal songs, well, I’ve changed. I haven’t stopped growing. As we all do. I’m not going to write the same song at 77 that I might have written at 37. I’m not a 37-year-old writer anymore."
For now anyway, Paxton’s mind is on the South Florida sun. And who can blame him. He’s on the phone from frigid Minneapolis. “I may perform in shorts when I’m down there, you never know,” he chuckles. “Strong men weep when they see me in shorts.”
Tom Paxton and Janis Ian perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 11, at the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $45 to $69 plus fees. Visit Ticketmaster.com.