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Sam Bush takes the music beyond bluegrass

Sep 22, 2011

Sam BushAspen Times
by Stewart Oksenhorn
September 16, 2011

CARBONDALE — You could say that Sam Bush was born with bluegrass in his blood. Bush was raised in Kentucky — the bluegrass state — and as a kid in his hometown of Bowling Green he could watch the bluegrass TV shows coming out of Nashville, less than a hundred miles away. He attended the very first multiday bluegrass festival ever staged, in Roanoke, Virg., a few hours drive east, and listened to his dad's collection of bluegrass records.

But Bush wasn't about to be limited by the sounds originating from his immediate vicinity. Thanks to “The Ed Sullivan Show,” rock ‘n' roll — in the form of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Jefferson Airplane — found its way to his ears and fascinated him.

“By the time I got out of high school, it was all these things getting mixed together,” Bush, who had won several fiddle competitions in his schoolboy years, said. “The rock ‘n' roll influences crept into the love of the bluegrass instruments. It's all just a product of the time I grew up in.”

Bush is more or less grown up now; on his next birthday, he will turn 60. But Bush has kept his ears open for new influences. Just recently, he saw a concert by Jeff Beck that he says might be the best guitar performance he has ever witnessed. Bush called the experience seeing the British guitarist “truly inspirational” — and added that it could actually inspire him to try out new ideas in his own music. Not long ago, at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, Bush played with the folk-blues icon Doc Watson: “That's always a lesson in taste,” he said.

This past spring, at the 7908 Songwriters Festival in Aspen, Bush was paired onstage with singer-songwriter Keb' Mo', and again he took away something specific from the encounter.

“He's the master of keeping it uncluttered and showing how to do things simply, how good that can be,” Bush said from Claremore, Okla., where he was about to play in the Bluegrass & Chili Festival. “There's stuff to be learned anywhere you turn.”

One of the most sudden, and longest-lasting lessons that Bush absorbed came in 1974. He was in the studio with New Grass Revival, the band which Bush had co-founded three years earlier, that was introducing an openness and eclecticness into string music. Some music came on that had a rhythm and feel that were totally new to Bush; someone informed him it was the Wailers.

“I said, ‘Who are the Wailers?'” Bush recalled. “They said, ‘It's this new reggae band.' I said, ‘What's reggae?'” Later that year the Wailers, led by singer Bob Marley, released the “Natty Dread” album. “I bought it and immediately freaked out. Because Bob's rhythm guitar playing reminded me of the way Bill Monroe played mandolin. Then I discovered the different ways rhythm sections moved, and that taught me how to chop differently on the mandolin.”

Bush points out that, even going back as far as Bill Monroe, bluegrass music has been open to outside influences. (Monroe, in fact, invented bluegrass as a combination of Appalachian string music and blues.) One version of Monroe's Blue Grass Boys featured guitarist-songwriter Peter Rowan and fiddler Richard Greene, a pair of youngsters then who were interested in new musical ideas. Bush became a fan of Seatrain, a band that featured Rowan, and Greene on electric fiddle, using it as a rhythm instrument.

Few pickers, though, have been as relentless as Bush in throwing new ideas into the string-band pot. New Grass Revival, which included banjoist Béla Fleck, singer-bassist John Cowan and guitarist Pat Flynn, mixed reggae, jazz fusion and rock into the mix. Through bassist Edgar Meyer, his bandmate in Strength in Numbers, Bush has tiptoed into classical music; the two, along with violinist Joshua Bell and mandolinist Mike Marshall, played together on the 1999 album “Short Trip Home,” which mixed folk and classical styles.

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