Sam Bush – Man with a mandolin
“I thought it was a great name,” Bush says of New Grass Revival, “because we were playing contemporary music on bluegrass instruments. We weren’t singing about the little cabin on the hill. People would come up to us and say, ‘You’re not playing bluegrass,’ and we’d say, ‘We know.’ We called ourselves a revival, because we weren’t pretending we invented new grass; we were reviving what had been done by John Hartford, the Country Gentlemen and the Dillards.
“The Country Gentlemen were so entertaining; John Duffey was hilarious, and Eddie Adcock looked like Larry Fine of the Three Stooges. John Hartford and Kris Kristofferson were the hippest people in Nashville at the time. The Dillards just looked so cool; they wore buckskin shirts with drawstring, moccasins and white jeans. All of them took rock songs by Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Jerry Lee Lewis and made them into what sounded like contemporary bluegrass. So we did the same thing, only more so.”
Like any new genre, new grass was created not so much by the artists as by the audience. It wasn’t until the late ’60s that there was a large audience which longed for better picking to go along with folk-revival songwriting — picking that transferred the harmonic adventures of contemporary rock and jazz to string-band instruments. When that audience and its unfulfilled need emerged, marginal musicians who had been experimenting with that approach suddenly found themselves with real careers. Sam Bush was one of them.
The 1972 debut album, Arrival Of The New Grass Revival, mixed songs by Bill Monroe and Vassar Clements with those by Leon Russell and Jerry Lee Lewis and featured a front-cover photo that made the members look more like Lynyrd Skynyrd roadies than Clinch Mountain Boys. But the picking was as solid as it was fast, and the foursome earned grudging respect in some bluegrass quarters.
When bassist Walker left, the group further challenged bluegrass orthodoxy by picking Louisville’s John Cowan. Not only did Cowan play electric bass exclusively, but he had no bluegrass experience whatsoever.
“When we jammed with him,” Bush recalls, “his timing was so great we had to hire him. But he had never played without a drummer, so I asked him, ‘Is this OK?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I like this.’ We’d play songs we’d known all our lives and he’d never heard of, but he jumped in with great excitement.
“At our first rehearsal, after we’d hired him, he said, ‘I sing a little too.’ I said, ‘Go ahead, but I’m the lead singer.’ He sang John Duffey’s ‘Some Old Day’, only higher, and when he finished, I said, ‘OK, from now on, you’re the lead singer.'”
The new lineup gelled quickly and released four strong studio albums for Flying Fish — 1975’s Fly Through The Country, 1977’s When The Storm Is Over, 1979’s Barren County and 1981’s Commonwealth — as well as a live disc for France’s Sonet Records, 1977’s Too Late To Turn Back Now.
Soon after Cowan joined, the band arrived back home in Barren County, Kentucky, at 4 a.m. from a three-week trip with John Hartford. A few hours later, their old friend Butch Robins called and said, “Can you be in Tulsa later today? Leon Russell wants to audition you for his backing band when he performs as Hank Wilson.” Billboard had just named Russell the #1 live attraction in pop music, so this was a shot at the big time. They climbed back into their step van and drove to Oklahoma.
“After the audition,” Bush remembers, “Leon said, ‘You know, I don’t want to do the country set. I’ll tell you what; why don’t you come out as my opening act?’ So we did, and the first show was 26,000 people. We were out two and a half months; we flew on his plane and stayed at his hotel, which I later learned was unheard of. George Harrison was at the last show. Then we came home to our regular lives, playing two and a half weeks at Arnie’s Pizza at Lafayette, Indiana.”
Six years later, Russell was driving through his hometown of Tulsa when he saw a marquee advertising a show with John Hartford and the New Grass Revival. He parked his car, talked his way into the show and got up onstage to jam. He enjoyed it so much that he invited the NGR to join his next tour. That tour was captured on the 1981 Paradise Records LP Leon Russell & New Grass Revival — The Live Album.
“For two long years, we played our own opening set and then were his band during the main set,” Bush says. “Leon wanted our style of rhythm and excitement; he liked the way bluegrass seemed to speed up. For us, it was like being in a ’50s rock band with acoustic instruments. But we worked so hard that it exhausted us. Finally, Courtney and Curtis couldn’t take it anymore and left in May of ’81. John and I continued on as the ‘Two Grass Revival’ part of Leon’s band till August.
“At that point, John and I decided that as much as we enjoyed playing with Leon and as much as we learned from it, it was time to get back to playing our own music and expressing ourselves instead of helping Leon express himself. When Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White got married that summer, a lot of people got up to pick. And when Bela [Fleck] played, I remember saying to a friend, ‘That’s the guy; we’ve got to get him in our band.’ John and I knew Pat [Flynn] from Colorado, because he opened some shows for us as part of a duo. Those were the two people we most wanted to play with.”
Fleck had just turned 22 when he joined New Grass Revival, but he was already revolutionizing the banjo. By slowing down his attack, he was able to articulate single-note lines with the harmonic freedom of masters such as Chick Corea. While Fleck was bringing virtuoso solos and a jazz influence to the band, Flynn was bringing a third lead singer and a country-rock flavor to supplement Cowan’s R&B bent and Bush’s bluegrass background.
Around this time, a crucial divide emerged in new grass. Some of the new audience wanted to hear the best singer-songwriter material performed in a string-band setting; those listeners gravitated toward Flynn, Hartford, the Seldom Scene’s John Starling, and Roses In The Snow-era Emmylou Harris. Other listeners wanted to hear hot, jazzy picking on string-band instruments; those listeners leaned toward Fleck, David Grisman, Jerry Douglas and Mark O’Connor.