By Larry Nager
Sam Bush stands center stage at Nashville’s most elegant concert hall, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, leading the biggest band of his life. He’s playing “The Old North Woods,” his Monroe-styled minor waltz, and as the Nashville Symphony Orchestra joins in, Bush throws back his head, his face exploding into a mile-wide grin. That expression is familiar to anyone who’s seen the master mandolinist/fiddler perform over the past four decades, the sign that Bush has found the “joyful noise” he’s been seeking since 1963, when an 11-year-old kid in Bowling Green, Ky., started picking mandolin.
The occasion is “Americana At The Symphony,” a concert combining the NSO with the all-star band of Jerry Douglas, Alison Brown, Byron House, Buddy Miller, and Abigail Washburn. A few days later, Bush will receive the instrumentalist Lifetime Achievement Award at the Americana Music Awards, followed on with a nomination and additional appearance at the IBMA Awards.
They say today’s statesmen are yesterday’s revolutionaries, and that’s true of Sam Bush. At 57, he’s best-known for heading New Grass Revival (NGR), the group that led the counter-culture insurgence in bluegrass in the early ’70s, when the music’s traditionalist/progressive split was slightly more volatile than a healthcare town hall meeting.
Raised on traditional bluegrass and fiddle music before progressive rock and jazz twisted his head in different directions, Sam Bush has made peace with both poles of his musical personality. They coexist on his new album, “Circles Around Me,” a musical autobiography. The title song refers to the familiar idea of life going full circle, but as usual, Bush avoids clichés. “We can both think of ten albums that have been called ‘Full Circle,’ so ‘Circles Around Me’ seemed to be an appropriate title,” Bush says in the conference room of Sugar Hill Records. He explains that the song, co-written with Jeff Black, poses the questions: “How did we ever get this far? How come we’re so lucky to be up and breathing and playing and loving life? We’ve lost friends and relatives over the years and how did we ever get this far?”
Bush, a two-time cancer survivor (cancer-free since 1987) wrote the song when his father, Charlie, was dying of the disease. His death in 2008 got Bush thinking of the passing of time and generations. Partly as a result, “Circles Around Me” is Bush’s most “bluegrass” solo album. The 15-song set includes “Roll On Buddy” and “Midnight On The Stormy Deep,” both featuring Del McCoury and learned from Bill Monroe recordings. There’s a Red Allen cover (“Out On The Ocean,” written by Bluegrass Unlimited editor Pete Kuykendall) and the Country Gentlemen’s “You Left Me Alone.”
Bush says the time was right. “Maybe it’s after all these years of trying to make sure you always make your own mark, that the bottom line is you finally get old enough to feel comfortable and just play some bluegrass that I love.”
Down on the Farm
He first heard that sound growing up in south central Kentucky. Charlie Bush was an amateur picker who kept their house filled with music. “I grew up on a farm outside Bowling Green. Mom and Dad would dance at square dances. Dad played some fiddle and mandolin, mom played guitar. And he had 78s, back when they were called albums, ’cause six records would be in like a photo album-style jacket.”
Those old records set Sam’s course. “I really loved the mandolin playing on the Tommy Jackson records. Some of these were Red Rector, but the ones I heard the most were the great jazz guitarist Hank Garland. I was told by Ray Edenton, who played rhythm guitar on a lot of those sessions, that Tommy would teach (Garland) the tunes right before they recorded them, so he would play them note for note. I started copying him first, before I started copying any bluegrass players. So, right off the bat, I was influenced by a guy who really didn’t play the mandolin and didn’t play like any other mandolin player.”
Sam started playing mandolin in December 1963 on a Gibson A-50 (back then, the best entry-level mandolin). Charlie Bush encouraged his kids’ music. Sam’s older sisters, Clara and Janet, both sang and with Clara playing guitar, the kids formed a folk trio. After Clara moved away, Sam and Janet joined the Folkswingers, a local group that copied the New Christy Minstrels.
Bush was hearing bluegrass music on the Grand Ole Opry and, in 1964, he went there with his dad and met Bill Monroe. He also saw bluegrass on TV during the golden age of thirty-minute syndicated country shows. “Every Saturday afternoon, there would be the Wilburn Brothers, Porter Wagoner, Bill Anderson, Ernest Tubb, and my favorite, Flatt & Scruggs. And there were certain morning shows like The Ralph Emery Show and you would see the Osborne Brothers and Bill Monroe. So, loving the mandolin, it was obvious the great mandolin players were in bluegrass.”
The 1965 Roanoke Bluegrass Festival sealed his fate. In those dark days before bluegrass music journals, event information was scarce. Bush learned of the festival in the folk magazine Sing Out! “I realized that’s where all the great mandolin players were goin’ and I begged my parents to let me go, and they did.” In the crowd, the 13-year-old met young bluegrassers like David Grisman, Andy Statman, Butch Robins, and Tony Trischka. Onstage were such first-generation greats as the Stanley Brothers, Clyde Moody, and Jimmy Martin with Bill Emerson on banjo. “I remember when Jimmy Martin was about to sing his first notes after the kickoff of a song. He just reared back and spit his gum about twenty rows in the audience. I said, ‘Now this is for me. I’ve found my calling.’”
Bush was a well-rounded kid, singing in school musicals, playing in the school orchestra, and learning traditional music (and electric guitar) at home. By 14, he was good enough to compete at the National Old-Time Fiddlers Contest in Weiser, Idaho. Going with older musicians, including Lonnie Peerce (his future boss in Louisville’s Bluegrass Alliance), Bush came in fifth in the junior division. He won first place the following three years. Weiser introduced him to a community of young musicians, making him feel less weird. Even in the Bluegrass State, bluegrass music had a stigma in the mid-’60s.
“Being from Kentucky, you’d think we’d all be surrounded by fiddle players, but that wasn’t the case. And it wasn’t until I went to Idaho that I met other kids my age that played the fiddle. You could be ridiculed for being a hillbilly, which was ironic, ’cause there we were in a little rural school in Kentucky. We were all hillbillies. When I would play in bluegrass bands, I would always, by far, be the youngest person.”
In those pre-Internet days, the only way to see bands, other than live, was on one of the three TV networks. Along with country and bluegrass Saturday afternoons, Bush was glued to the family TV for all the new rock. “On The Ed Sullivan Show, you got to see the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors.” Bush soaked it all in.
His first bluegrass gig was with the Grayson County Boys as he went back and forth between championship fiddling and struggling with proper violin technique. “I took some violin lessons in high school from a professor in Western Kentucky University. She was strict and good. I kind of had to stop playing fiddle for a while. The most valuable thing was doing a ten-page college rhythm course that she taught that helped me learn to how to understand subdivisions of beats and time against time. I think the rhythm things helped the mandolin more than anything, for sure.”
Bush is legendary for his monumental rhythm “chop.” As his NGR partner, John Cowan, said in presenting his AMA instrumentalist award, “If there’s a drummer’s Hall Of Fame, I hope that Sam goes in as the first mandolin player.”
New Grass Roots
Before graduating high school, Bush recorded the progressive bluegrass milestone “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” He and guitarist Wayne Stewart met banjo player Alan Munde at a festival and formed a band. Their self-titled album, recorded in early 1969 and released the following year, blended the rhythmic and melodic sophistication of Texas fiddle music with bluegrass drive and instrumentation. “We were trying to figure out a way to make our own kind of sound,” says Bush. Inexplicably, the album hasn’t been reissued on CD, although such tunes as “Molly Bloom” and “Jubilee” remain jam session mainstays.
At the height of the Vietnam War, Munde was drafted. He failed his final physical and joined Jimmy Martin’s band. That summer after high school graduation, Bush was bussing tables during the week and playing as Poor Richard’s Almanac with Stewart and banjo player Courtney Johnson on Sundays and Mondays for tourists at nearby Cave City.
Then he got an offer to join Bluegrass Alliance in Louisville. Playing five nights a week, Bush could give up his day job, but he had to play guitar. When the banjo spot opened, they added Courtney Johnson. Bush was in the band a couple months when guitarist Dan Crary and mandolinist Danny Jones returned for some festivals. Bush rode along to Reidsville, N.C.
“So we were down in Reidsville and I saw the world’s skinniest man sitting on a guitar case and playing what was, at the time, a new D-45 Martin,” recalls Bush. “It was Tony Rice. So, I walked up and listened to this guy play, and I was really knocked out. And I asked him to join the band on the spot. Then I could go back to mandolin.” In retrospect, it was natural leadership abilities coming out. At the time, he was seen as just a cocky kid. “I get back to the campsite. ‘Hey guys! I found this great guitar player.’ That’s when everybody told me, ‘Uh, you are not only the youngest guy in the band, you’re also the lowest man on the totem pole. Whaddaya mean you hired a guitar player?’” But, this was Tony Rice. “They heard him play and, yeah, he came on back to Louisville and we started playing like that.”
Bush took over on mandolin and, for a year, Bluegrass Alliance fielded its hottest lineup. They never recorded, but a clip of “One Tin Soldier” can be seen online on YouTube and on the “Bluegrass Country Soul” DVD. “And then came 1971’s ‘great band switchover,’” says Bush. Doyle Lawson left J.D. Crowe for the Country Gentlemen. Rice left the Alliance to play with his mandolinist brother, Larry, in Crowe’s band. Curtis Burch took Rice’s spot and Bluegrass Alliance became Bush, Burch, Johnson, bassist Ebo Walker and Peerce. “Around October of ’71, we had a falling out with Lonnie, who informed us, ‘You can’t fire me. I own the name of the band.’ And I said, ‘OK, the four of us will start New Grass Revival.’” Bush, who’d known Peerce most of his musical life, calls it a “rough parting.”
However, the music came easy. “We really didn’t have a plan, but one of the first times we practiced after it was just the four of us, we just started playing this riff and we kept playing [it] and it just got good to us. And then all of a sudden, somebody—maybe Courtney—busted into ‘Lonesome Fiddle Blues’ by Vassar Clements. We had been influenced by the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers and Cream, how they improvised. The idea of jamming over one riff, one chord, where a person could do an extended solo was certainly not new to the world of music, but it was new to people with bluegrass instruments. We were just always looking for that joyful noise.”
They were on to something. And in those politically and culturally polarized times, it didn’t take long to run into opposition. “There was a bluegrass establishment. There was the Bill Monroe-promoted festivals and there was the Carlton Haney-promoted festivals. And the Carlton festivals tended to be a little bit more progressive. Bill didn’t want to hire us on his festivals for a while. He didn’t like our hair that much.” It went deeper than that. “I think when we first started, the one threatening thing to traditional bluegrass fans was they were afraid that everybody would start playing like that. And that wasn’t the case.”
In fact, Bush and NGR didn’t think they were doing anything radically new. “That’s why we called the band New Grass Revival. We thought we were reviving a style that we first heard by the Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jesse and the Dillards and the Greenbriar Boys, the Charles River Valley Boys, Country Gentlemen. These bands, they’d already changed bluegrass. I don’t think we invented a new way to play bluegrass. I think we just took it into more of an improvisational thing.”
The major difference would be that those older acts were influenced by folk, country, and pop, while NGR drew from progressive rock. Even so, asserts Bush, “With the Revival, I don’t think there was a conscious attempt to change anything. I remember Courtney and I calling each other after we saw John Hartford and Glen Campbell on TV do a bluegrass-tempo version of ‘Great Balls Of Fire.’ We definitely got that from them. The same way we could work up ‘Norwegian Wood’ by the Beatles. But, we did it like the Charles River Valley Boys recorded it on ‘Beatle Country.’”
Bluegrass Culture Wars
NGR was soon influencing younger musicians, among them Dayton, Ohio, fiddler and mandolinist David Harvey, now leading Gibson’s mandolin division. “I went to Bean Blossom and they were there, jamming in the barn all night and it amazed me, the quality of the musicianship. All of ’em were in their early 20s. I was about 14-15 years old. It was pretty inspiring, ’cause these guys were so young, so good, so together. They picked all night, until Kenny Baker came up and run us all out of the barn.”
There was something in the air. It was the beginning of the great ’70s bluegrass craze, fed by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” the “Dueling Banjos” phenomenon and the “wooden music” movement. Bluegrass had become cool, and for hippies who couldn’t identify with Bill Monroe’s generation, long-haired Sam showed the way.
Vince Gill came to Louisville in May of 1975 straight from his Oklahoma high school graduation to join Bluegrass Alliance. He stayed a year, enjoying what he calls a “really cool music town” with plenty of live bluegrass. He’d already been a fan of Bush and NGR for a few years. “Sam was like a rock star to us 15, 16-year-old kids,” Gill says of first hearing him. “He wasn’t doing the normal stuff like the Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, and Bill. They were doing wild tunes and jamming and, especially in those years, I was not a hard-core bluegrasser. I had Led Zeppelin records and loved them just as much as bluegrass. But, because [NGR] had long hair and a little bit different mentality about it, it probably took them to turn a lot of people on to Bill Monroe, where it really came from. Sam really was quite a force, because he was someone who reached way across the boundaries and pulled in people who would never have been pulled in.”
That included Leon Russell, whose “Prince Of Peace” they covered on their 1972 Starday debut. Russell, riding high on his “Carney” album, invited NGR to open his 1973 tour. “I turned 21 on that tour and just couldn’t figure out why I was there,” Bush says, shaking his head. “It was a very unique situation. We rode on his private plane, stayed in the same hotels. And that was not the normal thing, which I now know. But it was like this dreamland thing, just surrounded by rock’n’roll hysteria.”
It was the dawn of arena rock, and those long-haired bluegrass boys landed smack in it. “We played to crowds of 20,000 people every night. We knew it wasn’t going to be that way for the rest of our life, but we were just enjoying it for what it was. The day after the tour stopped, we started our next engagement—three weeks in Lafayette, Indiana, at Arnie’s Pizza King. We were right back in the six-nights-a-week real life.”
In the fall of 1974, NGR got a new bassist—and a new direction—with John Cowan. Bush says his incredible voice wasn’t a factor when they hired him. “We played some tunes, asked him to join the band, and he says, ‘Well, you mind if I sing?’ And I say, ‘Well, yeah. I’m the lead singer, but go ahead.’ So he sang a couple songs and I said, ‘Well, I used to be the lead singer.’”
New Grass 2.0
That was the band that played through the ’70s and, in 1979, reunited with Russell to record “Rhythm & Bluegrass” and hit the road as his backup. After touring two years with Russell, a burned-out Johnson and Burch quit. Bush and Cowan stayed a few more months, leaving to organize a new NGR.
“Béla [Fleck] had hired me to play fiddle on his first record,” Bush says. “And we knew Pat Flynn from playing out in Colorado.” Progressive bluegrass had its Fab Four. Bush and Fleck, both at their instruments’ leading edges, were matched by the voices of Cowan and Flynn. Capitol Records signed them, hoping for chart hits at a time when bluegrass expatriates Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, and Vince Gill were on mainstream country radio. Bush remains proud of that band’s recordings, recalling, “I can hear the joyful noise. We were just really enthused again.” (Ironically, their biggest commercial success came after their breakup, when they reunited for Garth Brooks’ NGR cover of “Calling Baton Rouge.”) With that lineup, NGR became a legendary live act, continuing its streak as stars of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and inspiring thousands of young musicians to form hundreds of bands.
By 1989, Fleck was plotting world domination with Béla Fleck & the Flecktones and Bush was also ready to move on. “So we kind of had one band the first nine years, and then Béla and Pat, and we did that the second nine years. So 18 years for me, the same band.”
They went out with a bang. “Our last gig was opening for the Grateful Dead, New Year’s Eve, 1989. We didn’t make it to 1990. We were done by nine o’clock. It was New Grass Revival, Bonnie Raitt, and the Grateful Dead at the Oakland Coliseum. We had a killer set. It was great.”
Bush chalks up NGR’s breakup to simple burn-out. “I think we’d reached a point where we’d just worked so hard. We were on a lifelong tour at that point. We just played all the time.” Bush was ready to not be a bandleader for a while. “For me it was like responsibility overload. I don’t think I was enjoying the music as much as I should have. So, as all things ironic turn out, Emmylou was stopping her Hot Band and she wanted to sing in a quieter situation and she and John Starling had been talking and John told her she should call me. And she did call and asked if I’d be interested in starting a band, and I said ‘Well, I’d be interested in playing in your band, but I can’t make any decisions about anything right now. So you make the decisions, I’ll play.’ And it was great. Because for five years I was decision-free. The Nash Ramblers was just this welcome relief, and it did help me learn to appreciate and love what got me wanting to play music to start with. Because, boy, she really does love music; everybody in that band did.”
They cut an album at the Ryman Auditorium, the Grand Ole Opry’s historic home. Bush believes Harris jump started the revival of the then-closed building. Harris credited her “Live At The Ryman” album to Emmylou Harris & the Nash Ramblers, so when it won the country group vocal Grammy, everyone got a statuette. (Bush now has three). By the time Harris moved on to “Wrecking Ball” (a collaboration with Daniel Lanois), Bush had also been revived.
Sam’s Full Circles
Still on his quest for that joyful noise, he launched a solo recording career and also became an in-demand player in the studio and on the road with a number of artists, from Lyle Lovett’s Small Band to violinist Joshua Bell’s Americana projects to the supergroup Strength In Numbers that included Fleck, Mark O’Connor, Jerry Douglas, and Edgar Meyer. With Stuart Duncan in place of O’Connor, Mark Schatz in place of Meyer on bass, and Tony Rice (and later, Bryan Sutton) on guitar, that became Fleck’s Bluegrass Sessions band.
Bush also organized the first of his Sam Bush Bands. His latest edition features long-time bassist Byron House, eclectic banjo whiz Scott Vestal, guitarist Stephen Mougin, and drummer Chris Brown, the core group behind “Circles Around Me.” Along with McCoury, the album also features old friends Meyer and Douglas. But, what really brings “Circles” full circle is “Apple Blossom.” He’d planned a fiddle/banjo duet for the new album when Garth Fundis, NGR’s long-time producer, called. “He said, ‘I just found two fiddle and banjo cuts from 1976 with you and Courtney.’” The analog tapes of “Apple Blossom” and “Tennessee Wagoner” had to be “baked” so they wouldn’t disintegrate during digital transfer, but, for Bush, it was a priceless reunion with Johnson, who died of lung cancer in 1996. The album also revives NGR’s “Souvenir Bottles” and, from the Starday debut, “Whisper My Name.”
When the 21-year-old Bush recorded that LP, he was cast by many in the bluegrass community as Che Guevara with a mandolin. Yet, Bush says he’s always revered tradition. If he and his generation hadn’t learned everything they could from their bluegrass forefathers, there would never have been newgrass music. “At the point where New Grass Revival was getting started and J.D. Crowe & the New South and the IInd Generation, we all knew how to play bluegrass. And we always said, ‘This is very important. If you want to play newgrass, you have to know how to play bluegrass. You have to study those records, you have to know the way Carter Stanley sang certain songs.’ We used to work up Country Gentlemen tunes and there was this one tune that John Duffey made a mistake on the intro and I used to play it exactly like that, ’cause it was the only way it sounded right to me.”
Bush’s trademark mandolin (“Hoss”), the 1937 Gibson F-5 he’s owned since 1973 and now on its fourth fretboard, has been kept in action by Gibson master luthier David Harvey and NGR’s old set-up man, Harry Sparks (who also loaned Mougin his prewar Martin D-45 for “Circles”). Gibson makes two Sam Bush models—a Hoss copy with variations and a new Limited Edition Fern F-5. One of the latter, specially painted, served as his AMA Lifetime Achievement Award.
Despite the awards and accolades, Bush says he feels like he’s just getting started. “I realize I’m a big brother to some people, but I’m not too old that I don’t still have big brothers, people that I’m still looking up to, like Del and Peter Rowan and Eddie Adcock and the Osborne Brothers. I guess I can hear New Grass Revival’s influence on quite a few bands, but you can also hear J.D. Crowe’s influence and Del McCoury’s and even Jimmy Martin. More than ever, I see the melding together of the traditional and newgrass influences.”
Those seemingly disparate worldviews have always been part of bluegrass, Sam believes. “I did hear Bill Monroe say to a person one time that came up to him and played a tune, and it was very Monroe-style. Bill complimented him on the tune. He said, ‘That’s really good. Now what can you do on your own?’ I think as much as Bill Monroe enjoyed the fact that people did want to play like him and show that respect, I think he also expected them to have their own style. When people in old-time string bands first heard Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys on the Grand Ole Opry, that was a whole new music and it must have taken everyone by surprise. Back then, Bill was playing a new stringband music using the same instruments that had come down the pike. But, he found new guys with new voices, and I think that’s all we’re still trying to do.”
That “still trying” part is the key to Sam Bush’s success. “It’s interesting, ’cause at age 57, I’m just still trying to improve as a player and singer. And, I hope on this new record, it sounds that way to the listener. I’m not satisfied. You hear so many people, especially in this town of Nashville—they just want to be famous. A lot of people are famous; that don’t mean it’s a good thing. I just want to play and sing better, and I don’t think I’m there yet. I’m still searching.”
Larry Nager is a Nashville-based writer, musician, and documentary filmmaker.