Talking New Grass with Sam Bush
Sam Bush tells a story about how bluegrass Founding Father, Bill Monroe, after hearing the tradition-bending sound being touted as progressive bluegrass, once saw young Bush coming his way. “Here comes that mother.” So, the story goes, that is how Bush became known as “the Mother of Bluegrass.”
During a recent conversation with Bush from his home in Nashville, he laughed. “Well, actually that is apocryphal. That story started with Jethro Burns.” But, it is slightly telling of the attitude that once, and at times still, exists between two camps of the overarching genre known today as Bluegrass. When the music first came to national attention in 1961, it began showing up on television and in movies. It was only a matter of time before musicians from the Deep South raised not only on traditional country, many of whom may have heard the sound of Bill Monroe’s mandolin before they learned to walk, would bring the sound together with the Beatles and many of the pop songs they were hearing on the radio.
Sam Bush was among the first to do the obvious and soon, just a decade after the rest of the world began hearing bluegrass, the term “progressive” became a common pronoun used to describe the sound coming out of the banjos, mandos, fiddles, and guitars being heard in his hometown of Bowling Green, Kent. If rock and roll was fleshed out in Memphis, then Bowling Green became the center of the universe for this new generation coming up, experimenting with the sacred sound and look of the music of their fathers. In 1972 Sam Bush came together with Courtney Johnson, Ebo Walker, Curtis Burch, Butch Robins and John Cowan to form the New Grass Revival.
Changing bluegrass was not new. “There already was progressive bluegrass — Jim & Jesse and the Dillards had been around for a while.” Bush says, “The Charles River Valley Boys had put out Beatle Country in the ’60s.” But, for a group of young musician friends living in the land of bluegrass, the ache was strong to grow something new of their own, in the sonic breeze of their homeland. So they formed New Grass Revival. “We didn’t invent the term ‘New Grass.’ It was already coined by Walter Hensley, the great banjo player from Baltimore. He had an album that came out in 1969 called Pickin’ on New Grass,“ Bush asserts.
From the release of their first 1972 self-titled album, the term would soon become common and come to identify progressive bluegrass. The band could be considered something of the equivalent of the Byrds or the Yardbirds in their genre, with so many fine musicians passing through the ranks who would continue on to make their own mark. With members like Pat Flynn and Bela Fleck, it’s hard to argue with the band’s influence on today’s Americana music, which can be heard in bands like Yonder Mountain String Band and Nickel Creek. Sam Bush, in the years since, has become the elder statesmen of the form. With a series of strong solo albums and a presence at festivals around the world, he’s sometimes called, “Mr Entertainment.”
Like its father form, New Grass has found its niche on the festival circuit. In times past, traditional and non-traditional musicians have viewed each other with suspicion and sometimes with an air of superiority from both sides. “The division is not really all that serious anymore,” Bush says. “With most musicians there’s a sense that we’re all in this together. If there’s any division at all, it’s in the kinds of festivals that are being booked. There are very traditional bluegrass festivals and the ones with a lot of different kinds of acoustic music.” He laughed. “We’re generally not booked on the traditional circuit.”
Bush now has a strong following of fans known as the ‘Bush League.’ In the years since New Grass Revival, he has mastered a seamless fusion-based and integrated form of acoustic music that transcends categorization. It’s dynamic, soulful, earthy, authentic, and downright fun. Although he sometimes can been seen in a coat and tie, his scruffy hair and beard makes him look more like a Deadhead than a descendent of Bill Monroe. Most times you’ll find him wearing an old t-shirt as he plays behind his Lennon-esque spectacles on stage. But, the look and the boundless feel of his music defines him, and his experience is generously shared with his audience. For him, it’s always been about stepping just beyond the boundaries of tradition and staying open enough to let new musical air in. He is as likely to be inspired by Jeff Beck as Doc Watson. The influences are always just a breath away. He speaks about seeing Beck with a sacred air, saying that he saw what may be the “best guitar performance I’ve ever witnessed” and that it was “truly inspirational.”
Bush was given a Lifetime Achievement award from the Americana Music Association in Nashville. When asked how he defined Americana music, he chuckled ironically and replied, “It’s a place to gracefully age.” Then he continued, “I’m really so grateful for Americana and the recognition I’ve received. It gives us a place to be when you might not fit in all the other formats. It’s been important for other artists like Dylan and Little Feat, who might not be heard anywhere else today.”
He’s also become the crowning figure at one of the most influential acoustic music festivals in America, Telluride, where he has become known as the King. “I guess we outlasted everybody!” He laughs. “They keep letting us come back.” Indeed, he recently celebrated his 40th consecutive year headlining the festival. “It’s really gratifying to see people of all ages come out. Very young people are there and so are their grandparents.”
It is a time when an artist as legendary as Sam Bush can be a part of the flow of music and audience that he helped create.
There’s been a lot of road and years from Bowling Green, Kent., and the first time he met Bill Monroe, who told him to try the fiddle instead of the mandolin. Perhaps he didn’t cherish the idea of the competition coming from someone so young. But, today, it’s all about a good-natured community of music surrounded by the love of the form and the people it attracts.
As Bush wrote with Jeff Black in the song “Circle Around Me”:
Was I dreamin’ or did this really happen?
I can feel the earth below my feet.
The world is turning fast and wild
And like a new born baby child
Who’s never known regret or defeat
I am surrounded, tangled in the wire
Drawn up tight to the calling and the rising frequency
Of the silent smile and laughter
And the definite sound of all this love falling down on me.
On the song, his mando plays familiar circular riffs around the beauty of the words and the soul in his Kentucky voice as he sings the chorus: “How in the hell did we get this far holding tight to the tail of a shooting star? You’re running circles around me now.”
The circles shine through his music — a force that heals and brings us all together in celebration, in jubilee.
To see where Sam Bush will be playing this summer please check out his tour schedule on his website.
This article originally appeared in Turnstyled Junkpiled.