Get to know Sam Bush, the father of newgrass
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — “Father of Newgrass” Sam Bush is a legend. He founded the progressive bluegrass group New Grass Revival, which ushered the genre into mainstream music.
After 18 years with New Grass Revival throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Bush brought his distinctive style mandolin and fiddle playing to his work with Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and countless others. He’s earned four IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist and a stack of Grammy Awards and nominations.
Bush and the Sam Bush Band will play at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 3, at Strings Music Festival in Steamboat Springs. Playing alongside Bush will be Chris Brown on drums, Stephen Mougin on guitar, Todd Parks on bass and Wes Corbett on banjo, who joined the band in late January.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Explore Steamboat: Like a lot of lifelong musicians, you got into music from your family: your dad played mandolin and fiddle, your mother played guitar and your four sisters sang. How did your parents get into music?
Sam Bush: My dad was born in 1919. He wanted to play violin, but they put a clarinet in his hands — he hated that. My parents were big fans of country music. My mother loved the music of Dean Martin and Bing Crosby; my father loved Patsy Cline and Roy Acuff. He’d play his records around the house, and on those records would be a mandolin playing the melody with the fiddle. Of course, now I play the fiddle and the mandolin, so that made a mark on me. Growing up, my sisters were the singers, and I was their dopey little brother they let go along with them. We lived in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and were only 60 miles from Nashville. We had great radio reception from the Grand Ole Opry and would listen to that a lot. And not to be understated was having Nashville TV reception, too. I got to see Bill Monroe play the mandolin on T.V. and Jethro (Burns). My dad always told me that Jethro was the best mandolin player in the world. Jethro played jazz on the mandolin.
ES: Once you graduated high school, you came to a fork in the road with the options being either going to college to play violin or moving to Louisville to play in a bluegrass band nearly every night of the week. How did you make up your mind to go the live music in Louisville route?
SB: When you work as a busboy in the Holiday Inn, about to register at the University of Western Kentucky, when all of a sudden two guys ask you if you want to move to Louisville and play in a band — that sounded like heaven, especially because I’d broken a cart full of dishes that night. Moving to Louisville and playing music seemed like total freedom, and it was. It was so inspiring. I met a whole bunch of other musicians to play with. Just to get in the mood of Louisville and play music was a freedom I still enjoy.
ES: When you and New Grass Revival were getting started with this new genre of music, did it feel like you were playing music like so many other bands or did it feel like you were pioneering this whole new animal?
SB: It certainly didn’t feel like we were making our mark on anything. It kind of goes along with bluegrass in a way. It’s kind of an improvisational music. We literally were playing it the way we felt. We were feeling our way as we go, and no, we just felt like we were trying to learn the whole time. Then we were on shows with people we’d always looked up to — Bill Monroe, Jim & Jesse; it still felt like we were learning from them. We came along at a time when there were already progressive bluegrass players, and we felt like we were learning — I still do. There’s an old saying that there were a lot of bluegrass players from the Northeast and the South. The ones from the South know playing bluegrass feels good, and the ones from the Northeast are trying to figure out why. We didn’t worry about why it felt good, we just knew it did. It still happens that way when we play. We’re reacting off each other because it just feels so good.
What: Sam Bush
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 3
Where: Strings Music Pavilion, 950 Strings Road
ES: You play mandolin, fiddle and guitar. How does playing one instrument influence your playing the others?
SB: I don’t think it was ‘til I was in my 30s that I started realizing that I was playing the fiddle like a mandolin player and the mandolin like a fiddle player. I had to learn to differentiate. I pride myself as a rhythm player — that’s the most exciting part about music, for me. I hone in on the rhythm more than anything. They’re tuned the same way, and of course, the fiddle is fretless, so I could slide notes better the way a singer could. But I was playing them the same way, and I realized I could appreciate those instruments better if I could differentiate. By now, I’m blessed in a way that I don’t really think about the technical aspects when I play them.
ES: When someone credits you with influencing their music — how does that feel?
SB: It’s pretty gratifying. You don’t really think of yourself in that way — I don’t. When we got to play at the same shows as Jethro Burns and Bill Monroe, back in the day as Bluegrass Alliance, we felt validated that we were good enough to play with them. When we played at Bean Blossom, Indiana, we were totally accepted by the audience, and feeling accepted by the audience, that’s the most important part. Without an audience, it’s just a soundcheck. Now, we’re playing on the same shows with people who say we influenced them, but it feels like I’m just playing with my friends. Like Greensky Bluegrass, and tonight, we’re playing with our friends from Leftover Salmon. I’m glad we all get to play together. So, it’s gratifying but, more than anything, I’m thankful for the friendship and camaraderie.
ES: “Howlin’ at the Moon” is one of my favorite songs of yours, and I’m curious to hear how you take a little time for sunshine in your own life on a daily basis and when you’re on tour.
SB: Let’s face it, I’m a cancer survivor. I’ve learned that every day is not a given. I woke up today — it’s a great day, I get to play music, I get to feel the love from my life and my daughter. It’s the idea of “I don’t have to do this, I get to.” And I get to make a living doing something I love. I wish everyone could say that. As long as my hands work — that too is not a given. Mine are slower than they were, but I’ve never enjoyed it more. I didn’t used to enjoy singing as much as I do now. Singing was something I had to do because I was in the band. I don’t know how, but I’ve learned to enjoy that, too.
ES: You’ve earned four IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist, and you’ve released stacks of albums and a DVD. What in your musical career are you most proud of?
SB: Last year on Mother’s Day, May 12, I woke up with a tremendous pain, here in Saint Louis, and had to be rushed to the hospital and cancel a few months of work. I didn’t know how it was going to play out. My first show back last year was at the Telluride Bluegrass (Festival) — my 45th consecutive Telluride — and that was an emotional experience. I don’t take this for granted. Getting back to playing after being sick, I really had to work to get back to where I was. Last year, when I stepped on stage at Telluride, it was really a reaffirming moment of how much I love to do this.
ES: What are you most looking forward to in the near future?
SB: Coming to the mountains. We first came to Steamboat as New Grass in 1972. The gondola had just opened, and we were playing five nights a week at the Inn at Thunderhead. Coming back that way is gratifying; it’s just amazing.
Julia Ben-Asher is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.
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