Sam Bush, King Of Telluride Bluegrass
They call Sam Bush the King of Telluride Bluegrass. I thought it was because he’s played all but one of the festivals (this year that means 38 of 39), he’s one of the greatest mandolin players of all time, and because he collaborates with just about everybody who plays the Town Park stage.
On Saturday night, Pastor Mustard had a different explanation as he introduced Sam Bush and his band for their 8:00 p.m. set. It turns out that many years ago, on a vernal equinox, Bush hiked up the Bear Creek trail (it runs just above Town Park and winds up at Bear Creek Falls) and bathed himself in the cold waters just below the falls. The good pastor did not explain how Bush accomplished this or survived it, but that misses the point. This frigid Bear Creek bathing was not only Authurian sign and symbol of Sam Bush’s anointment as King of Telluride Bluegrass, but, according to Mustard, it doubled as a fountain of youth, which explains why Bush is so . . . youthful. There’s more to the introduction – Pastor Mustard went on and on, even giving away a Slim Whitman vinyl in a gesture of dubious generosity and unclear relevance – but that’s the gist of it.
After Pastor Mustard finished, Sam Bush walked out on stage with his band and showed the real reason he’s King of Telluride. Like any good king, he’s a leader, in this case the leader of an excellent band that includes bass player Todd Parks, drummer Chris Brown, guitarist Steven Mougin and Scott Vestal on banjo. Quite an ensemble.
Bush and his band opened with Memphis In The Meantime, the John Hiatt song. They followed that with tunes by Doc Watson, Peter Rowan, Tim Krekel and Earl Scruggs. After that, they launched into a rocking bluegrass version of I’ve Just Seen A Face. The crowd, which was already completely on board, would have been up for a Bear Creek baptism at this point – Pastor Mustard, where were you when we needed you?
After that came Riding That Bluegrass Train, then Bush and company brought the crowd a little closer to home with a Sam Bush/Jeff Black tune called Circles Around Me. The song asks the question of how we ever got this far, and includes some Telluride specific imagery: “High in Telluride, up on Bridal Veil, ten thousand feet above the sound.” You would have thought that he would have plugged in a reference to the Bear Creek experience. Then I started thinking that Bridal Veil was intended as a general reference to waterfalls in the area, which might mean that he’s singing about the Bear Creek baptism. Verification of the myth! Pastor Mustard, any thoughts? Following that, the band launches into Townes Van Zandt’s White Freightliner. Everybody is dancing by now, seemingly oblivious to the interpretive issues presented by the previous song.
After introducing the band, Bush brings Jerry Douglas and his dobro on stage, commenting that they live within a mile of each other in Nashville, but come to Telluride to play together. Newgrass pioneer John Cowan is on stage, too, without his bass but with his amazing vocal instrument. They move into the blues and then transition to Sailin’ Shoes, then back to the blues, as in Crossroads, then back to Sailin’ Shoes. My son Matt, who’s 18 and attending his sixth festival, said to me, “Only Sam Bush would pull all that together.” As it turned out, he was just getting started.
Jeff Austin and Dave Johnston (Yonder Mountain String Band), John Cowan, Bela Fleck, Jonathan Edwards (yes, the Sunshine (Go Away Today) guy) and Jerry Douglas are on stage with Bush and band for Cripple Creek in tribute to Levon Helm. I love The Weight but it was great to see them play Cripple Creek instead. And play it they did. Everyone got into the act, with Edwards even playing a little harmonica.
All this had to come to an end, eventually. The bottom of the show, if you will. Big Bottom, the Spinal Tap song, took us all to the bottom together. Bush strolls out on stage with a bass guitar (which he will eventually play with a slide). Ben Kaufmann of Yonder brings his bass, and then there’s Edgar Meyer and his stand up. All told I counted 5 bass players on stage, jamming out. Only in Telluride, and only by the King.
Now I think I’ll go up on Bear Creek, take a little dip. It can’t hurt.
Mando Lines is on Twitter @mando_lines.