Bluegrass Ain’t Just For Old Fogeys Anymore

Spotlight on Sam Bush

By Paul Doyle

To many he is known as President Bush. Bluegrass President, Sam Bush that is, leader of the Bluegrass Revolution. Though his name is synonymous in certain crowds with fantastic music and party time occasions such as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Bush, a mandolin and fiddle wizard, is still unknown to innumerable potential fans who are certainly missing out. Like others pushing the parameters of the archaic narrow vision of what Bluegrass music is all about such as Béla Fleck and David Grisman, Bush is not afraid to play any style that feels good. His annual all star jam in Telluride is particularly famous for its everyone-join-in Bob Marley covers.

At age 19, Sam Bush was the founder of the New Grass Revival, who played their final show with the Grateful Dead on New Years Eve in 1989 after 18 years of progressive bluegrass. NGR was renowned for breaking the boundaries of bluegrass through the 70s and 80s. Over the years the line up for the Revival included the late banjoist Courtney Johnson, Béla Fleck and bassist/singer John Cowan. He was also a member of the Nash Ramblers, Emmylou Harris’ backup band in the first half of the 90s with the late Roy Husky Jr., (who played on Steve Earl’s last three albums), Jon Randall Stewart, and Larry Atamanuik. Last year he toured as a member of Lyle Lovett’s band. Bush was also a member of the legendary supergroup Strength in Numbers (with Jerry Douglas, Fleck, Mark O’Connor and Edgar Meyer), who’s album The Telluride Sessions has achieved mythical cult popularity in the expanding bluegrass world.

This year he is back with a new solo album and touring with the Sam Bush Band featuring Cowan, Stewart and Atamanuik. The release is titled Howlin’ at the Moon (Sugar Hill, 1998), an activity Bush thinks everyone should more take time out to do. Besides the Sam Bush Band, helping out on the CD are Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Roy Huskey Jr., Emmylou Harris and more. Howlin’ has a little bit of everything that makes Bush great, virtuoso playing and varied musical terrain, all with the magic Sam Bush touch. "Song For Roy", a tribute to Huskey is particularly beautiful with Emmylou’s help, and the last track is a bluegrass version of "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" featuring Huskey on acoustic bass. Overall, the album is hot. Half of the 14 tracks are instrumental, and all of them are loaded with the blistering picking and bowing that Bush and his cohorts are famous for. "Big Rabbit" and "Mr. Freddie" are just two examples of why this album rips.

There will be not one, but two opportunities to check out Sam Bush in the coming weeks. I highly recommend making it to at least one of them.

I interrupted the ever gracious Mr. Bush at his home in near Nashville, where he lives with his wife and business partner Lynn and here is what he told us:

Paul Doyle Where did you grow up?

Sam Bush I grew in Bowling Green, Kentucky, which is 55 miles north of Nashville, listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, GWSM, Clearchannel 650. I also watched national television programs on Saturdays. I used to watch the Flatt Scruggs show religiously.

P.D. How did you get started in music?

S.B. Due to my parents interest in music. My father, who was a farmer, played mandolin and fiddle, and my mother played guitar. My sisters would sing. Music was definitely part of the household.

P.D. Who were some of your early influences?

S.B. (Lester) Flatt and (Earl) Scruggs. The true earliest influences on mandolin were Bill Monroe and Jethro Burns. Jethro was half of the Homer and Jethro comedy team. The world later found out that he was one of the great jazz mandolin players of all time. On fiddle, it was Tommy Jackson, one of the main fiddle players that defined the true country style for the fiddle. My father was buying the albums and he was a big fan of Jackson, and I used to listen to them.

P.D. New Grass Revival is renowned for breaking all the barriers in Bluegrass. Looking back how do you view the impact of the band?

S.B. We had a large impact in that we made it more acceptable to do a long jam and improvise. We showed young people that there was a different way to play bluegrass. We were a band for an audience that may not have liked straight bluegrass. People would like the way we would play a Bill Monroe tune, then ask us who’s song it was. Then later they would discover that they liked the way Bill Monroe played it too.

P.D. The 70s and 80s were sort of a hey day for Bluegrass, but Bluegrass Music seem to be getting more and more popular in the 90s through a broadening of the fan base. How, if at all, has the dynamic of the Bluegrass Fan been changing in your eyes?

S.B. There’s simply more to choose from for the Bluegrass fan. The 70s and 80s were growth periods. Today there are more great festivals to go to, more venues to play, more out there for the fan.

P.D. How has the financial situation changed for Bluegrass in the last 30 years?

S.B. Again, there are more venues to play, more record buyers. I only had to work in the restaurant business three months. I have been working professionally as a musician since I was 19. Success is doing what you want. In that way I am very successful.

P.D. When are we going to hear from Strength in Numbers again?

S.B. Well, it was never a full time band. The bottom line is we had a meeting a few years ago, in the beginning of the year and we discovered that everyone was too busy to get together again that year. The good part is we’re too busy. The bad part is we’re too busy. Strength in Numbers was a true labor of love. We made it because we wanted to write and play together. We don’t know when we will all get to play together as a whole, but we get to play together in certain ensembles. Edgar Meyer’s next release will include Mike Marshall, me, Joshua Bell, a fantastic violin player, and Edgar on bass. Of course Béla and I will always play together from time to time, and Jerry (Douglas) and I, we’re neighbors.

P.D. You describe your latest release as "a bunch of songs with kind of a positive statement." Could you elaborate on this a bit?

S.B. My wife and I are business partners. As we were looking through a list of possible songs for the album, we came up with a list that all went together and they had an overall positive message. "Take a little time for sunshine." It is easy for us to say, but sometimes we don’t do it. There are too many things to be happy about, don’t get bogged down. We tried to make a joyful noise on the album, the type of music that you don’t have to be a musician to enjoy.

P.D. One review described you as "a ground breaking mandolinist and proficient fiddler." What is your relationship to both instruments and the guitar?

S.B. I feel that I am a mandolin player first. It is my first and my favorite. But I have my own style on fiddle and it is recognizable that it’s me. That doesn’t mean it’s good or bad, but it is recognizable. I have always played acoustic guitar. Now when I play, I like to play electric. I have a blues rock band, Duckbutter, with John Cowan and some others. I am a big fan of blues and guitar players. The slide mandolin sneaks in now and then. I have a 1935 metal bodied National mandolin. The action is real high like a dobro, so the sound is more appropriate to slide. I play it on "Face Tomorrow" on Howlin’ at the Moon.

P.D. Tell me a little about working with the late Roy Husky Jr.?

S.B. When Roy first started playing sessions, I happened to be there. It was on a John Hartford record. I was very fortunate that when Emmylou (Harris) started the Nash Ramblers, I suggested we get Roy. She said we could never get him because he didn’t like to go on the road. But we couldn’t get him without asking. We asked and luckily he agreed and joined us for two years. He was one of my best friends musically. We feel a void here in Nashville. His father, Junior Huskey made the style that became the sound of bass in country music. Roy continued it on the same bass that his father played. I was supposed to play on Steve Earl’s Train a Comin’ with Roy, but I broke my elbow. Peter Rowan took my place, and did a fantastic job. I don’t miss me on the album

P.D. You are known for your all star jams. Who are some artists out there that you have been listening that you have yet to work with but would like to?

S.B. Eric Clapton. He’s always a mainstay. Otherwise, I’ve been very lucky. When I think of the numerous times I’ve played with Doc Watson, I just think how lucky I’ve been.

P.D. Tell us about the Sam Bush Band that we will see at Winterhawk and Higher Ground in Burlington.

S.B. Larry Atamanuik on drums, who I’ve known for 25 years, my old friend John Cowan on bass and vocals, and Jon Randall Stewart on guitar. I love the quartet configuration. We have just enough of everything.

P.D. Any surprises in store for either date, especially Winterhawk?

P.D. You are rumored to be a big baseball fan. I believe your dog is name after shortstop Ozzie Smith. Who is you favorite team and some of your favorite players?

S.B. The St. Louis Cardinals. I’m wearing my Cardinal robe as we speak. My wife and I just got back from the All-Star game last week. Ozzie Smith and Stan Musial are two of my all time favorites. More recently Mark McGwire, Brian Jordan. I am a fan of all of baseball, the players, the announcers, everything. I love baseball because it is unpredictable and there are no time limits.

P.D. What similarities do you see between Baseball and Bluegrass?

S.B. The main similarity I see is in the work ethic. Baseball players have to work hard to succeed. Bluegrass musicians work extremely hard too.

P.D. Do you think expansion in fact weakens overall pitching leading to a productive era for hitters?

S.B. Expansion has stretched an already watered down pitching situation, but the ball players have gotten bigger and stronger and are swinging for home runs, not just to make contact like we were taught when we were young. Offense has gotten better. But in any era there is always a shortage of pitching.