Sam Bush – Man with a mandolin
“The first tune I learned was ‘Dueling Banjos’,” Bush notes, “because I saw Jim & Jesse play it on TV. When you live on a farm and you’re out in the country, there aren’t many distractions, so I had a lot of practice time and I focused on that. Plus, after working in a tobacco patch for years, you knew there had to be a better life. I wanted to get off the farm and my parents supported that; they didn’t want me to have to work that hard.”
But even from the beginning, Bush didn’t learn the conventional bluegrass approach. His daddy’s favorite fiddle records were those by Tommy Jackson, the legendary Nashville session fiddler who cut a series of instrumental sides for Decca. Young Sam painstakingly studied the uncredited mandolin accompaniment, only to discover later that those parts were totally unorthodox. It turns out they were played by Hank Garland, the great session guitarist who really wasn’t a mandolinist at all. But he was so talented at anything with frets that he could simply mimic Jackson’s lines.
“So right off the bat,” Bush says, “I’m learning mandolin from a mandolinist who’s not a really a mandolinist who doesn’t play like any other mandolinists. He played like a fiddler. So when I started playing bluegrass, I was already aware that I was playing differently from the other players. I could have worried about it, but I kind of liked it that I played unlike everyone else. I never tried to get rid of the fiddle approach, the Hank Garland influence; I just added the bluegrass style to it.”
When he was 13, Bush picked up the fiddle and was soon winning local contests. Lonnie Peerce and Bud Meredith, two fiddlers who played on Bowling Green TV, knew Sam’s mom and told her about the National Fiddling Championship in Weiser, Idaho. “You need to let Sam go out there,” Meredith told her. “He’ll learn a whole lot.” He was persuasive enough that Sam was soon crammed into the back seat of a station wagon, as five musicians drove 2,000 miles from Kentucky to Idaho. Sam came in fifth in 1966 and then won the Junior Division in 1967, 1968 and 1969.
“Growing up in Kentucky, you’d think I’d meet a lot of other fiddlers my own age, but I didn’t,” Bush says. “Hoot Hester was the only other young fiddler I even knew about at the time — now he’s the house fiddler at the Opry. Nobody my age wanted to be a hillbilly — especially in Bowling Green, where we all actually were hillbillies. We all wanted to be hip; we all wanted to be the Beatles. My dad wouldn’t let me have a Beatles haircut, but I wanted one.
“If you played rock guitar, you were cool, but if you played hillbilly fiddle, you were the geekiest of the geeks. But when I went to Weiser, I met all these other kids my own age who also played fiddle. I met Byron Berline, who was eight years older than me and playing football for the University of Oklahoma. He was cool, and he became my fiddle hero.”
At a fiddle contest in Missouri, Bush met a great young banjo player named Alan Munde in an Oklahoma band led by Lou Berline, Byron’s dad. Bush, Munde and guitarist Wayne Stewart formed a trio called Poor Richard’s Almanac that released an all-instrumental, self-titled album on Ridge Runner Records in 1969. When Munde joined Jimmy Martin’s band, Bush’s Kentucky pal Courtney Johnson joined the trio, which played every Sunday afternoon at Mammoth Cave.
While Bush was in high school, he was playing bluegrass mandolin, contest-style fiddle, classical violin, acoustic guitar in his sister’s folk group, electric guitar in a rock band, and upright bass in the school band. This approach reflected an omnivorous appetite for music that would stay with him the rest of his life, but when he graduated from high school in 1970, he had to make a very practical decision.
His plan was to enroll at Western Kentucky University and study classical violin. But the summer after graduation, Lonnie Peerce invited the 18-year-old to join his Louisville band, the Bluegrass Alliance, as a guitarist. Around the same time, Roy Acuff, a friend of Sam’s father, invited Bush to join the Smokey Mountain Boys as a fiddler. What to do?
“I seriously considered becoming a violinist rather than a fiddler,” Bush confesses, “but I had already been a fiddle champion, so I was much further along in that world than I might ever have been in the classical world. Plus I decided I liked the fiddle better. The first trip with Acuff was to Vietnam, and even though it was a series of concerts, I didn’t want to go anywhere near that place. And I didn’t care for that old-time country music as much as bluegrass. What I was really jazzed about was going to Louisville to play bluegrass in a smoky bar five nights a week.
He chose Peerce’s outfit. “The Bluegrass Alliance was a local band but they were turning some heads. Their second album was called New Grass, not so coincidentally. We started playing the festivals, and at one in Camp Springs, North Carolina, on Labor Day 1970, I saw the world’s skinniest guitarist playing the hell out of a D-45. It was Tony Rice, and I said, ‘Come on, join the Bluegrass Alliance so I can go back to mandolin.’ Then I got Courtney [Johnson] in the band. When Tony left, I started singing lead and brought in Curtis [Burch] on guitar.”
For all intents and purposes, it had become Bush’s band. He infused the bluegrass instrumentation and repertoire with rock ‘n’ roll songs, rock ‘n’ roll rhythms and an anything-goes rock ‘n’ roll spirit. As they moved in this direction, Peerce’s old-time fiddle style became more and more incongruous. At the end of 1971, the four younger members told Peerce he was fired, but he replied, “You can’t fire me; I own the name.” “OK,” they said, “we quit.” Bush, Johnson, Burch and bassist Harry “Ebo Walker” Shelor left and formed a new quartet they dubbed the New Grass Revival.