Some thirty years ago, when newgrass was still the biggest controversy at bluegrass festivals, a burly country guy approached Sam Bush, then fresh off the stage after a performance.
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"New Grass Revival. That y’all?" Sam remembers him saying, copping a voice not unlike Billy Bob Thornton’s Karl Childers from Sling Blade.
The Bowling Green, Kentucky farm kid/mandolin prodigy admitted as much.
"Who in the hell y’all think y’all are," the old guy said. "The Mahavishnu Mountain Boys or something?"
It remains one of the most accidentally insightful interpretations of Sam Bush’s musical mandate uttered to this day. Whoever the guy was, he knew enough to liken the musical eclecticism of New Grass Revival to the jazz-world fusions of John McLaughlin and the then popular Mahavishnu Orchestra.
And Sam, raconteur that he is, stashed the joke away in his memory so that he could make it the title of an original tune on a studio album in 2004.
That album, King of My World, is Sam’s fifth as a front man, but it would take a historian’s patience to account for all the projects, shows, jams and sessions he’s been a part over these three decades. Because Sam Bush has been one of acoustic music’s great innovators and consummate collaborators. With a dexterity that calls to mind his hero St. Louis Cardinal Shortstop Ozzie Smith, Sam can make lightning moves to his left or right to play neo-classical music with bass master Edgar Meyer, suit-and-tie wearing bluegrass or country with Lyle Lovett. He’s played fiddle and mandolin on sessions by superstars like Garth Brooks and Alabama, and he’s lent sizzle to creative projects by newcomers like Acoustic Syndicate and Dave Peterson. Sam has also been honored with three Grammy Awards for his role in projects by Emmylou Harris, Bela Fleck, and in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
By ignoring orthodoxy, Sam has done as much as anyone since Bill Monroe to shape the destiny of the diminutive mandolin, adding new power and syncopation to its percussive chop and a new harmonic vocabulary that embraces rock, reggae, Afro-pop and jazz. His decades of popularity at eclectic music festivals like Telluride and MerleFest stem from the fact that he’s also a stage dervish, a rhythm doctor and a party animal, not to mention an enthusiastic storyteller and a gifted mimic. Indeed, Sam’s most recent CD as a bandleader, Ice Caps: Peaks of Telluride, captured the breadth and excitement of the Sam Bush Band in the live festival setting.
King of My World finds Sam back in the studio with his road band for the first time in five years. Or more precisely, it documents the transition from one band to another. Jon Randall Stewart, a long-time friend and band-mate, contributed to about half the songs, even as he was wrapping up his time with Sam to re-ignite his own solo career. Into the breach stepped Brad Davis, another acoustic and electric guitar master who logged a decade with Marty Stuart among other distinguished jobs. The tunes were largely worked up on the road and audience-proven before the sessions that led to the recording of timeless titles like Mahavishnu, Bananas and Puppies ‘N Knapsacks.
Besides those blazing hybrid instrumentals, the album features two songs by Jeff Black. Sam is an unabashed fan of the Nashville-based songwriter, who here contributes the exalting King of the World and the grassed-up They’re Going To Miss Me When I’m Gone. Sam also found a song from Juluka founder Johnny Clegg, the English-born artist who routinely defied the law by playing in mixed-race South Africa bands during Apartheid. Spirit is the Journey is a fun, prolonged metaphor about seeking life’s rewards ("The spirit is the journey/the body is the bus/I am the driver/from dust to dust.").
Sam is also a fan of modern-day bluesman Keb’ Mo’, whom he helped on his last album, so he picked up the song A Better Man, a co-write by Keb’ Mo’ and Anders Osborne. And to scratch an old-time country itch, Sam finally cut Grandpa Jones’ Eight More Miles to Louisville, which he’s performed for years.
Besides Randall and Davis, Sam works with Chris Brown, the latest in a line of sophisticated and subtle drummers, plus one cut with long-time associate Larry Atamanuik and fiddler Andrea Zonn. Boyhood friend Byron House roots the band on the bass end. As a special guest, keyboard master Reese Wynans, who offered piano on King and organ on Spirit.
Sam latched on to the mandolin and fiddle at about 11 years old and grew into both fast. By the time he graduated high school he’d already earned three national junior fiddle championships in Weiser, Idaho and had a reputation as a hot young mandolin player. Growing up on a farm outside of Bowling Green meant it took some serious effort to get near the music community. So besides the cross-country drives to Idaho, Sam and a buddy trekked to Roanoke, Virginia in 1965 for one of the very first bluegrass festivals put on by festival father Carlton Haney. The weekend changed his life. He met David Grisman, Tony Trischka, Buck White, Andy Statman, Bobby Osborne and other key influences and future friends.
Sam’s first recording was Poor Richard’s Almanac, a blend of bluegrass and Texas fiddle made with Wayne Stewart and Alan Munde. It came out in 1969, the same year Sam made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry. Sam’s first regular band came a year later when he joined the prestigious and progressive Bluegrass Alliance, replacing hot licks guitarist Dan Crary, later recruiting Tony Rice into the band on guitar so he could move back to mandolin.
Members of the Alliance became the seed for New Grass Revival, a band that made surprising commercial ripples for its left-of-center sound, along with a lasting artistic impact. Bluegrass and pop had fused, and bands like Nickel Creek and Leftover Salmon will be forever in their debt. NGR went through two key personnel periods, folding up in 1989. Free-agent Bush quickly found a new job backing Emmylou Harris in her acclaimed acoustic band the Nash Ramblers.
But even after the Ramblers ran their course over five years, giving way to Sam’s touring with Bela Fleck & the Flecktones and Lyle Lovett, he never lacked for interesting projects. One, the Strength in Numbers album The Telluride Sessions, became scriptural for the newgrass instrumental movement. Another, Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza, offered a platform for the greatest living mando pickers to pluck their stuff. Along the way, Sam invigorated recordings by Jerry Douglas, Steve Earle, Bill Keith, Alison Krauss, Jim Lauderdale, Maura O’Connell, Vassar Clements and many more.
It’s an unusual career path for a bluegrass picker, Sam admits. Generally young prodigies get snapped up as sidemen to established stars and spend years working in the shadow of giants before being given the chance to stand alone with name recognition.
"We’ve always done it ourselves," says Sam of his various bands. "We were hard- nosed about it. We insisted on playing like we play. We dressed like we dressed. We didn’t compromise. And we had to make our own audience."
Next time you see Sam on a stage, check out the sea of happy people before him and confirm for yourself that he’s done as much. — Craig Havighurst / Nashville,TN
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