Charleston-based songwriter Joal Rush enjoys a balanced reputation in town. He's known by some locals as an amiable strummer with a versatile setlist, capable of handling any bar gig. However, those more familiar with Rush appreciate his talent for songwriting. With a new solo album in hand, his original material offers much more than some casual fans might expect.
Rush grew up in the Midlands town of Camden. As an up-and-coming guitarist in Columbia, he got into the alternative rock, pop, and Americana fare of the late 1980s and '90s — from Tears for Fears and Hootie to Jeff Buckley and Neil Young.
"I loved so many different kinds of music — blues, pop, and all across the board," Rush remembers. "When I was younger, I just wanted to venture out and learn on my own and never pigeonhole myself to one thing."
Rush currently resides on Johns Island, although he stays busy traveling around the Southeast on the weekends and during short road trips.
"I do music full-time, playing a lot of bar gigs to help get me through and pave the way to do things like this tour," Rush says. "It's tricky to balance shows where you play original stuff versus covers. Bar gigs have their crowd, and your job is to go in and be entertaining. You still put your all into the performance, though."
Over the last two years, Rush hired several colleagues — drummer Nathan Bocock, bassist Preston Hayden, and keyboardist Brian Sansbury — and recorded 11 songs at USC's School of Music. They worked in a rehearsal room and a recital hall with Tommy Carnes, a USC audio engineering student who engineered the tracks. The resulting collection is titled Wares.
"It was an opportunity for Tommy to build his resumé, and, obviously for us, there were a lot of benefits," says Rush. "We tracked a grand Steinway in a recital hall. A lot of nice tones came out of that."
Wares rolls along at a leisurely pace with a sparseness and warm production quality that resembles some of the classic singer-songwriter albums of the late '60s and early '70s — from straightforward folk-pop numbers like the opening track "Another Start" to acoustic-based ballads like the waltzy "Question" or the slow-swaying "Amends," accented with mandolin and piano. "Hard to be the (Heartbreaker)" is an anthem with a blues feel in 6/8 with heavier electric guitar work and big harmonies in the chorus.
Rush releases Wares this week with a CD release show at the West Ashley Home Team BBQ with fellow Upstater Nick Norman. This week, they embark on a short tour together, sharing a backline and backing players at each show.
"Nick and I met 10 years ago," Rush says. "We've always done similar things, playing a bunch of bar gigs. We used to play Hog's Breath Saloon down in Key West. This tour is kind of like Booker T and the MG's used to do, backing Sam & Dave and other acts. It's a practical way to tour. I kind of thought of the scene in Walk the Line, or like the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame shows, but obviously on a much lesser degree."
No matter the backing band or venue, Rush hopes people relate to his songs and react positively to the gentle folk and pop stylings of the music.
"We are definitely trying not to sound like commercial radio," he says. "There's a conscious effort to go in and let songs speak for themselves through instrumentation. We let that create the production. There's a laid-back vibe on the record for the most part, with a couple tunes that gear up a little. We let it take its own shape with natural-sounding instrumentation.
"Overall, the focus is definitely around the songs," he adds. "I didn't want to take anything away from the basics, although we added some spice here and there."