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.
When Bush performs Friday at 8 p.m., at Carbondale's PAC3, listeners are certain to hear a mix of bluegrass, rock, reggae — and possibly some twists they haven't heard from Bush before. Along with hearing the Jeff Beck concert, Bush has been listening to the fusion band Return to Forever, which has been joined on its recent tour by electric violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.
“It brought back to mind how much I love his playing and how much he's influenced me,” Bush said. “And that you're never too old to learn something new. There's something to be learned at every turn.”
- Stewart Oksenhorn
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Watch out, Tupelo - there’s a new king in town.
Bluegrass legend Sam Bush is known as the King of Newgrass, a style of bluegrass he developed in the ‘70s. His band New Grass Revival, which he formed with Bela Fleck, Courtney Johnson and others, pioneered the new sound.
“Basically you can boil it down to making traditional bluegrass-style instruments – fiddle, mandolin, banjo, etc. – to make contemporary music, new music,” Bush said in a phone interview from his home in Nashville. “We respect the tradition of bluegrass. In the words of Bill Monroe, ‘You make it your own.’ That’s what he used to say, ‘Well, that’s good, now make it your own.’”
Bush did just that.
One man, many crowns
He grew up on Monroe and other bluegrass masters, like Flatt and Scruggs and The Osborne Brothers. When it came time to make his own music, he took what he learned from them and borrowed from other genres to make a new sound.
Newgrass has served Bush well, as he’s become quite a legend in bluegrass music in the past 40 years.
In fact, he’s so well-loved and respected at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival that he’s earned another title: King of Telluride.
Bush is known for an exciting, diverse live show.
“We do a mix of acoustic and electric music. It can cover anything from bluegrass to newgrass to reggae to rock ‘n’ roll and country,” he said. “It’s a good, high-energy show.”
He’s been known to reach fans of all genres.
“To a rock ‘n’ roll audience, we look like a bluegrass band. To a bluegrass audience, we look like a rock ‘n’ roll band,” he said, laughing.
Playing live is what makes Sam Bush, King of Newgrass and King of Telluride, the happiest, and he likes to share that happiness with his audience.
“We truly have fun playing on stage. It is our most joyful noise. That is our joyful time, when we get to play music,” he said. “Come on out and enjoy a positive experience.”
The King of Telluride. Slammin’ Sammy. The Bush Whacker. Sam the Man. The Mandolin Reign. Burnin’ Bush. The Lean Machine from Bowling Green. The dude goes by many names, which only points to the weight of expectations that must fall on Sam Bush each year as everybody — and I mean nobody misses Bush’s show — counts on him to bring the hurricane-riffing newgrass incineration that has made him the chief god in the Telluride pantheon.
And, sure enough, the reason people someday will walk by the Sam Bush Statue when entering the festival grounds is due to sets like tonight’s, his 37th consecutive TBF, a soup-to-nuts barnstorming through the Best of Sam, toggling among altered-state excursions (“River’s Gonna Run” with an Emmylou Harris cameo), New Grass Revival deep cuts (“Unconditional Love”), and breakneck bluegrass chuggers (“Bringin’ in the Georgia Mail”). Sam remains an ageless wonder, wearing a custom-made Cardinals jersey, weaving and bobbing in his signature shaggy-haired playfulness and wide-mouthed laughter, clearly having a blast and driving guitarist Stephen Moughin and banjo marvel Scott Vestal to cross swords with him.
My two favorite moments came with the title cuts from his solo records, “Circles Around Me”, a poignant song about survival and being in this very location, “Howlin’ at the Moon”, featuring Sam’s barndance fiddle, and an epic “Laps in Seven”, as the band switched to electric instruments and lacerated the crowd with a dozen minutes of nasty funk and shrieking lava-lamp solos. Sam set the flamethrower late on a string of covers — “Whipping Post”, a Jerry Douglas-abetted “Sailin’ Shoes”, “Up on Cripple Creek” —that wrapped up another year, another Sam Bush classic. Side note: Bush’s introduction came by way of a surprise, unbilled appearance from Pastor Mustard, the TBF legend who emceed the festival for a couple of decades before unceremoniously vanishing a few years ago. The good Pastor reminded everyone of what we’ve been missing with his hilarious, masterful intro, and Planet Bluegrass would do well to exercise the kind of utilitarianism with its emcee selection that they do so well with every other aspect of the festival: the greatest good for the greatest number is to return Pastor to his rightful place once and for all.
By Steve Leftridge
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Telluride Bluegrass Fest regulars call him “King Sam” for a reason. Sam Bush is not only a ridiculously creative bluegrass player on his mandolin; he also is capable of delving into rock, blues, even a little funk when the mood strikes. His energetic shows belie his age—you’d never guess this guy is 57—and he’s a pretty mean vocalist and fiddler player in addition to his role as one of the fastest mandolin players on the planet. This show is the delayed opening party for the refurbished Gallivan Center, so drop by and see what your tax dollars have done to the place. Red Desert Ramblers open the show. Gallivan Center, 239 S. Main, 7 p.m., free
City Weekly, Salt Lake City
July 7, 2011
When: Thu., July 7, 7:30 p.m.
A nifty pairing, this. Bush has not only survived, but actually transcended a couple of generations’ worth of bluegrass/newgrass controversy to become a supremely relaxed and confident performer who can jam out on slide mandolin at one moment and belt out a Country Gentlemen classic the next, backed by a band every bit as adventurous and capable as he is. At this point, he’s legitimately called an icon, and he got there the hard way. Williams, on the other hand, is still not quite all the way through the transition from young multi-instrumental virtuoso and sideman to frontman creating his own sound, but he’s already a prodigiously talented musician with a solid band who only lacks a set list of songs that are unmistakably his. In the meanwhile, it’s a pleasure to hear his rich, plaintive baritone voice sing just about anything.
Sam Bush plays free show in Vail Thursday, Bluegrass/newgrass star in town for Street Beat
Sam Bush won a lifetime achievement award from the Americana Music Association, and what a life it's been.
“I've been to the mountain,” Bush said.
Grammy Award winning multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, co-founder of the genre-bending New Grass Revival, adored as the King of Telluride and the King of Newgrass.
“It's overwhelming and humbling,” Bush says. “It goes along with the title cut of my new album, ‘Circles Around Me,' which basically asks, ‘how in the hell did we get this far?' In my brain I'm still 17, but I look in the mirror and I'm 57.”
This week, he's getting as far as Vail on his winter tour, for this week's Bud Light Street Beat concert in Vail Village.
“Circles Around Me” is Bush's seventh solo album. It's a 14-song package produced by Bush, and it's a lineup of some fabulous pickers: Del McCoury, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas and New Grass Revival co-founder Courtney Johnson (posthumously, he died in 1996, but some unreleased recordings show up on Bush's new album). Then there's the band: Scott Vestal, Stephen Mougin, Byron House and Chris Brown.
“After all these years of experimentingI've come full circle.” says Bush.
Bush has been doing this 30 years. He says he's lucky to have played with his heroes: Bill Monroe, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs among them. Monroe is the Father of Bluegrass Music, Scruggs invented the finger-picking method of banjo playing and Doc Watson is one of the great flat pick guitarists to ever pick up a six string.
These days it's not uncommon for someone to join Bush on stage and with that same awe-struck look in their eyes.
“Chris Thile, Wayne Benson, Shawn Lane, Matt Flinner, Ronnie McCoury, Mike Marshall - they play in ways that I can't play,” Bush said. “You just have to stand there and applaud the great young talent. “I'm hoping to be around when the next generation comes along after that group. That's going to be something.”
Like most of us, Bush is still looking way down the road. He wants to grow as a songwriter and collaborator, and explore other ways of playing the mandolin. And he wants to improve as a singer.
Bush has twice survived cancer. He's doing what he loves for as long as it lasts.
“As long as I'm alive I hope I have the ability to play,” says Bush. “When the ability to play is taken away, it's humbling. It teaches you a lesson: don't take it for granted.”
As co-founder of New Grass Revival in the early '70s, Sam Bush became a revelatory force in the progressive bluegrass movement — also dubbed "newgrass" — occasionally drawing the ire of traditionalists but ultimately inspiring generations of open-minded players.
His rhythm "chop" on the mandolin — rooted in the playing of Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe and the Seldom Scene's John Duffey — is a fixture both in the bluegrass world and on recordings by Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Garth Brooks and Dierks Bentley.
His recent solo album, Circles Around Me, is up for the top album prize at Thursday night's International Bluegrass Music Association awards show, and Bush is also nominated for mandolin player of the year, song of the year (for "The Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle," penned with Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson), instrumental group of the year (with his Sam Bush Band) and best instrumental recorded performance ("Blue Mountain").
At his Nashville home, Bush, 58, offered his thoughts on a life in music and on the state of contemporary bluegrass.
At the International Bluegrass Music Association's World of Bluegrass conference (Sept. 27-Oct. 3), you've been charged with giving a keynote address.
"Yes, and Bill Monroe is one of the subjects. We're coming into the 100th anniversary of Bill Monroe's birth year, and I don't know of any other form of music where the origins can be traced to one person. I'm known as 'the newgrass guy,' but you have to know how to play bluegrass to make newgrass. It all comes from Bill."
Did you crave Monroe's approval?
"I never craved it, but it was nice to get it. We had his approval early on, when I was in a band called Bluegrass Alliance. He had us on his festival at Bean Blossom in 1971, and he told us stories and gave us a tape of a song he'd written that hadn't been recorded by anyone that he wanted us to do, called 'Body and Soul.' Once Bluegrass Alliance split off and (we) started New Grass Revival, he wasn't as favorable to us.
"In 1976, we were at a festival in Martinsville, Va., and Bill didn't have a banjo player. Our banjo player, Courtney Johnson, was standing with Bill's fiddler, Kenny Baker, and Monroe walks up. To Bill, in front of Courtney, Kenny says, 'Courtney's a good banjo player. Let's get him to play with us.' Bill said, 'No sir.' Kenny said, 'Courtney's a good banjo man.' 'No sir, I won't have it.' Kenny was putting him on the spot. The third time he asked, Bill said to Courtney, 'What is it you call that music you play?' Courtney said, 'Newgrass.' Bill said, 'Yes, I hate that.' That was the end of the conversation."
You're featured on Dierks Bentley's Up on the Ridge, Emmylou Harris' Live at the Ryman and many other "country" albums. Is it good for bluegrass when mainstream country artists experiment with the genre?
"It can be very good. Dierks has an appeal to a wide country audience, and hopefully they'll hear it and like it and get into this music. I'm a big fan of the whole record. And Emmylou was instrumental in opening a lot of doors for acoustic music and acoustic sounds. When we made that record with Emmylou, it got me around Bill Monroe again. He was at the Ryman to be on that record, and at one point they had to change tape reels and there was some down time. Bill and I played a duet, with two mandolins on 'Southern Flavor.'"
Today, we hear music based on the Monroe model that's called "bluegrass," and we also hear very expansive, non-traditional things called "bluegrass." Do you still like the term?
"I don't know if (genre elders) Flatt & Scruggs ever called their music bluegrass. (Flatt & Scruggs manager and booking agent) Louise Scruggs once told my wife, Lynn, 'Sam and Earl (Scruggs) don't play bluegrass: That's a very limiting word.' And I went for years saying, 'No, I don't play bluegrass.' Well, I don't just play bluegrass, but I certainly come from there. If it's a label, I can live with that label, because it's a (highly technical) kind of music. If you can play bluegrass you can play almost anything."
What's the state of bluegrass these days?
"I think it's really healthy. People like (progressive bluegrass act) the Punch Brothers are accepted within the acoustic world. Alison Krauss is as successful as a recording artist as one could be. But you still have the Del McCoury Band, and the way they play they harks back to an earlier time. We still have originators of styles, such as Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson and Ralph Stanley, and we have people who have taken those styles to other places. A bunch of young mandolin players look up to (the Punch Brothers') Chris Thile and to Adam Steffey. It's interesting how the evolution's going, but it all comes back to Bill Monroe."
Reach Peter Cooper at 615–259-8220 or firstname.lastname@example.org.