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The key to being folk royalty is to maintain the common touch


Tom Paxton is enjoying life on the road again. The folk icon thought about hanging up his touring shoes a few years ago, but since teaming up with Jon Vezner and Don Henry, he’s been having too much fun to think about such things.

“I’m having more fun than I’ve had in years,” he says on the line from Alexandria, Va.

After completing a tour with Janis Ian three years ago, he was pretty much done with the road, a perhaps-not-surprising choice for a man who’ll be 81 come month’s end. Then he met up with Vezner and, through him, Don Henry, a pair of award-winning songwriters with a series of their own hits who were performing as the DonJuans.

“Right from the beginning, I thought ‘this is a trio,’” says Paxton of the energy from writing and performing with the pair of multi-instrumentalists.

Retirement isn’t on the table anymore.

“It’s more fun than I’ve had in years. I’ll do this until I quit. You don’t retire from folk music; you might stop performing, but you never retire.”

Just how much fun he and his compadres are having will be on display Sunday afternoon at The Registry Theatre in Kitchener. There’ll be a collection of Paxton, Vezner and Henry songs on offer, along with those they’ve written together.

After 58 years in the business and dozens of albums under this belt, Paxton has a large catalogue to draw on. His own story is in many ways the very history of the folk revival that began in the 1960s.

Paxton began his performing career in Greenwich Village in 1960, playing alongside the likes of Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Eric Andersen. His wasn’t a front-row view of the movement, but up on stage for its evolution. He’s seen the ebbs and flows of the folk scene, including its current incarnation as part of the roots revival. In fact, he and his peers of the ‘60s are seen as the traditionalists by today’s young folkies, a source of some amusement to the veterans.

When he started out, he and his peers drew on the roots music of Appalachia and the early story songs, the traditional ballads for which the lyrics evolved with the years and the times.

“Songs like The House Carpenter and The Golden Vanity, that’s roots to me. That was our source material. That plus Woody Guthrie informed my own songwriting,” he says.

“Now, the younger performers think of us as the traditional stuff,” he adds with a laugh.

Paxton does take a traditional approach to crafting songs to this very day.

“I don’t think my songwriting has changed – three chords and a capo,” he chuckles. “I’m basically the same songwriter I was in 1960 – children’s songs, love songs, political songs. Though I hope I’m a somewhat more complete writer than I was.”

Topical songs that reflect the here-and-now of reflecting on the world are very much part of the tradition, a pursuit that should live on despite the risk of a song becoming dated or not standing up to the test of time, he maintains.

“I’m a big defender of topical songs. What makes a topical song last is not so much the topic, but if it’s a good song,” says Paxton, though those with a story to tell should just write the song and see how it resonates, without worrying about its future.

“You can’t go wrong writing about the world you see.”

Topical issues still very much inform his songwriting, as witnessed by the likes of his indictment of U.S. gun culture in What If, No Matter from earlier this year.

He advises aspiring songwriters, including those who attend folk festival workshops where he teaches, to simply keep writing, no matter what the subject matter. He recommends writing a thousand songs, knowing full well most of them are likely to be not great … or even bad.

The first song of his that got recorded – The Marvelous Toy in the summer of 1960 – came after at least 50 before it. He thought the earlier ones were good, but came to see that they weren’t. The next recordable song came sooner, however, as he worked to hone his craft.

“I still have to write 10 songs to get a keeper,” he laughs.

Sunday afternoon’s show will be full of keepers, his own and those of the DonJuans, Grammy Award winners all. A Nashville-based songwriter, Henry has written songs for Ray Charles, Conway Twitty, the Oak Ridge Boys, John Conlee and Kathy Mattea. Henry and Vezner received song of the year awards for co-writing Mattea’s critically acclaimed hit, Where’ve You Been, as well as from the Academy of Country Music, the Country Music Association, and the Nashville Songwriters Association.

Collectively, their songs have been covered by Harry Belafonte, John Mellencamp, Neil Diamond, Ray Charles, Nancy Griffith, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Janis Ian, John Denver, Faith Hill, Blake Shelton, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Bob Dylan, among others.

“There’s a pretty good gamut that we run,” says Paxton of the musical offerings on this tour.

Tom Paxton and The DonJuans take to the stage at 3 p.m. on October 14 at The Registry Theatre, 122 Frederick St., Kitchener. Tickets are $35, available by calling 519-578-1570, online or at the door.

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