It’s been 27 years since I first wrote about Oklahoma’s Tim Rushlow, who was then the lead singer for a spirited young group called Little Texas. Little Texas had come to what was then the biggest country-music venue in town, Tulsa City Limits, as the opening act for the hit band Shenandoah. I concluded my June 30, 1990, Tulsa World review of the show by saying, re: Little Texas, “Watch these guys. They should make it, and big.”
I certainly wasn’t always right with my predictions, but I was on the money with that one. A year later, the group’s members were watching their first single, “Some Guys Have All the Love,” soar into the Top 10 of the national country charts, beginning a near-decade run that took Little Texas from opening in clubs to headlining in arenas. As the band’s primary vocalist as well as a guitarist and mandolinist, Rushlow was right there in the middle of it all, and after the group disbanded, he continued to record hits like the Top 10 country ballad “She Misses Him,” an affecting story of the emotional toll of Alzheimer’s disease.
Even then, however, there were indications that Rushlow might eventually find his way down a different musical path.
“I remember a comment my wife made to me 25 years ago,” he says. “She said, ‘You now itnow, I’m really happy you’re a country star, but I see you in a suit, singing in front of a big-band orchestra.’ That was just a vision she had.”
As it turns out, that vision would ultimately become reality. These days, Rushlow is making waves as a big-band vocalist in the Rat Pack and Great American Songbook tradition, recording and touring with a 20-piece orchestra – and having a swell time doing it.
“I’m very proud of what I accomplished in country music,” he says. “I’m very proud of Little Texas and I’m proud of my solo hits as Tim Rushlow. But I’ve evolved as an artist to a place where I think there’s more for me somewhere else right now. And it’s the big-band world, the jazz world, singing classics, being a curator of the Great American Songbook, and getting to bring that to a new generation of fans who don’t even know they know it.
“You know, I could take the big band to Japan and do a show, and those people would know every word to every song.”
While Rushlow discusses the classic tunes with all the zeal of a recent convert, his affinity for the likes of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin goes back to his childhood and his dad’s record collection. Tim was born at Tinker Air Force Base, where his father, Tom Rushlow, was stationed. Tom worked as an aircraft mechanic, but he made himself known to baby boomers throughout Oklahoma and surrounding states as the lead vocalist for Moby Dick and the Whalers, a hugely popular regional rock ’n’ roll band of the ’60s that ended up appearing nationally on Dick Clark’s Happening ’68 television show.
“Both my parents sang, so I was in a singing family,” Rushlow says. “We just sang all the time. I got asked the other day, ‘How does it feel to be singing these songs for the first time?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve been singing them in my pajamas, with a toothbrush in front of the bathroom mirror, since I was 10.’”
On the DVD of his new two-disc concert release, Tim Rushlow & His Big Band – LIVE (ROW Entertainment), Rushlow mentions his reluctance to continue chasing “the country dream” as a factor in his new direction. But there’s a lot more to it than that. For instance, about a decade ago, he became the final artist to record with famed Nashville producer Buddy Killen, who was then doing what would turn out to be his last recording project. Killen asked Rushlow to come in and cut a version of “Little Drummer Boy.”
“Buddy, who was just iconic, thought I was an old soul,” Rushlow says. “One day, he said, ‘You know, I’m not sure if you’ve met your match yet, buddy. You may still have something ahead of you with this crooner thing.’
“So there were these little hints along the way, and then it finally got to the point where I was like, ‘OK, I want to cut a big-band Christmas album. How can I do that? I don’t want to go get on a record label and be controlled by somebody. I want to do it on my own.’ So I hired a couple of great friends [Jimmy Ritchey and Steve Mauldin] and basically brought in an entire big band, and the Nashville Symphony string players, and we recorded a live Christmas album.”
Released in 2014, the disc soared into the Top 20 of Billboard’s Holiday Albums chart, paving the way for his new CD and DVD package.
“After the Christmas thing was recorded, my phone started ringing,” says Rushlow. “I’ll be honest: I think a lot of people thought, ‘OK, here’s another country artist trying to be a crooner.’ But when they started hearing the album, then they started going, ‘Wow. This guy’s authentic. He means it. He’s not kidding around here.’”
Initially conceived as a way to show prospective talent buyers and producers what his concerts looked and sounded like, the big-band show Rushlow recorded a couple of years later at a Nashville venue turned out so well that it not only led to the Tim Rushlow & His Big Band – LIVE release, but also to a deal with American Public Television, which has offered the concert since September 2016 as a pledge-drive presentation for affiliated stations across the country. Coordinating his appearances with the showing of the TV special, Rushlow has appeared with his band in the cities where the program airs, where he gives each station 100 tickets to use as fundraisers.
Rushlow and his band were also asked by producer Mark Burnett to play for President Trump’s inaugural ball, which he says he was honored to do.
“I’ve been going overseas every year with Larry Stewart from Restless Heart and Richie McDonald from Lonestar,” says Rushlow, naming two other front men from hit-making country bands. “We go over there with our guitars, and we’ll hop in a helicopter and go to these forward operating bases in Afghanistan or an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, and it’s just a blast. So whether I’m asked to go play for the troops overseas or to perform at an inaugural ball, I look at it as the same. It’s serving my country. I don’t go as a Republican or Democrat. I go as an American.”
And when he does, he takes that Great American Songbook with him.
“You know, I could take the big band to Japan and do a show, and those people would know every word to every song,” he says. “I know because I’ve been to Tokyo and gone into a karaoke bar where a bunch of people were singing ‘Mack the Knife.’ You go to Dubai, or Milan, or Berlin or London, anywhere you go around the world, that music is revered. And for me to get the opportunity to carry it on – that’s an amazing thing.”
Tim Rushlow & His Big Band