His Grass Is Jamming: Sam Bush on JamGrass and Beyond
His face might not be splashed all over MTV or grace the pages of
Entertainment Weekly, but the crackling tones and crisp cadences that spring
from his fingertips are stealing their ways onto more of our radios and CD
players. Mandolinist Sam Bush is one of acoustic music's most prolific artists,
playing live and recording continuously since the 1960s. He launched his career long before many flaming comets of the pop world achieved wealth and stardom, and he continues to create new music long after many former household names have vaporized.
Bush appeared on this summer's JamGrass Tour, an ambitiously conceived festival of artists who have staked out hallowed ground in folk and bluegrass circles. In addition to the Sam Bush Band the event featured renowned acts such as the
David Grisman Quintet, Peter Rowan, Tony Rice, the John Cowan Band, Jorma
Kaukonen's Blue Country Heart Band, as well as rock acts String Cheese Incident and Dark Star Orchestra, who headlined different legs of the tour. The mission: to demonstrate that some of the hottest jams can be laid down with mandolins, fiddles, and dobros, and that effects-laden electric guitars, swirling keyboards, and a dual-drummer attack aren't required.
Acoustic music hasn't received a mandate for a tour stocked with acoustic
artists since the folk revolution of the 60s. But a spark of renewal has
ignited, especially after the unexpected success of the soundtrack from the Joel
and Ethan Coen film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? landed at the top of the pop
and country charts, selling over five million copies. The tour based on the
album, which featured country, folk, and bluegrass avatars, also has played to
sold-out audiences nationwide. If ignoring the mainstream to play less
commercial material demonstrates both defiance and a labor of love for acoustic
musicians, currently it is rewarding artists like Bush and his O Brother peers.
Bush's youthful passion for traditional, acoustic forms inspired
him to become a musician. He grew up in Bowling Green, Kentucky where he was
influenced by the twang of country radio and the high-octane picking and
chugging rhythm of mandolinist Bill Monroe, the grandfather of bluegrass. As a
youngster, Bush picked up the mandolin and the fiddle to play his down-home
favorites by the likes of Flatt and Scruggs and Tommy Jackson.
In 1970, Bush formed the New Grass Revival with fellow picker Pat Flynn,
infusing the traditional repertoire he cut his teeth on with rock, jazz, funk,
and reggae. The band's name and sound led to the coining of the term
"newgrass," a twist on traditional bluegrass that welcomed a variety of
influences. Consequently, Bush and company endured slights from their purist
forebears, who considered this spirit of inclusion a trashing of the storied
but rigidly conceived bluegrass playbook. It also did not help their cause that
the band adopted the long hair and rebellious attitude of the hippie generation,
an affront to the clean cut and nattily attired older generation of bluegrass
pickers, who looked like they stepped out of a Carter Family portrait.
Undaunted, Bush forged on with his musical vision. After the dissolution of New
Grass Revival in 1979, Bush formed the Sam Bush Band with NGR bandmate John
Cowan, and he has been touring continuously since. Sam eventually added
drums to the mix, breaking free from the conventions of Monroe-style bluegrass
bands, in which the mandolin serves as the chief percussion instrument. His
repertoire includes tunes from a wide range of artists like Bob Marley, the
Rolling Stones, and Little Feat.
A staple at bluegrass and "newgrass" festivals for the past three decades, Bush
has become one of the most sought-after mandolin players and vocalists in
country and bluegrass music. Bush has won three International Bluegrass Music
Association Mandolin Player of the Year Awards, served as a member of Emmylou
Harris' Nash Ramblers, copped a Grammy for his playing on the "O Brother"
sessions, and worked with Gibson to create the Sam Bush Signature mandolin.
Today Bush might be riding higher than ever.
On this particular evening, the concert site was not a spacious green meadow or
a gently rolling hill. Instead, the venue was the FleetBoston Pavilion, a tent
erected in Boston Harbor with a full view of a new waterfront courthouse and
flight traffic from Logan Airport. Bush proved to be a crowd favorite at
JamGrass, leading the audience through spirited, faithful renditions of Marley's
"Lively Up Yourself" and "Is This Love?" and brandished a hot fiddle for the
John McLaughlin-influenced "Mahavishnu Mountain Boys." Bush displayed his
trademark humor and enthusiasm by teasing Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" and
Boston's "More Than a Feeling." A half-hour before his set, Bush graciously
agreed to sit down and discuss the eclectic appetites of JamGrass fans, the
current state of acoustic music, and his participation in some of today's
extraordinary acoustic music projects, including a guest spot on Kaukonen's
latest disc, "Blue Country Heart."
*Jim: Do you notice a difference in playing in front of the JamGrass audience
versus more "traditional" bluegrass audiences?*
Sam: I may not be the best person to ask about that. I play just a few where
they call them "bluegrass festivals"- Grey Fox…. That's more wide open, but
they call that a bluegrass festival. This is a younger more, not a rock and
roll audience per se, but it has a more rock and roll mentality. It's very
young, especially the ones that Dark Star Orchestra plays on. The Deadhead
element filters in, they're young, enthusiastic people. But the great thing
about these audiences is that they know they're going to hear a wide variety,
and that seems to appeal to them.
Jim: Do you consciously change the content of the sets for this type of tour?
Sam: The basic thing I have to do in terms of conscious decisions revolves
around time restraints. (Laughs) There are so many of us on the show. Normally
I'd be able to go two-hours-plus, but it's a one-hour show. You've got to stick
to it so everyone gets their fair chance. So, yeah, I do alter my sets, so that
I don't play too long. Material-wise, maybe a little more reggae on these kinds
*Jim: (Bluegrass performer) Ralph Stanley has called bluegrass mixed with other
elements, such as reggae, funk, jazz, and rock "shitgrass"...*
Sam: (Laughs) Well, I do all that! I do all that stuff.
*Jim: So playing the variety of material and seeing the audience react is your
Sam: That's the good part about this. Our band doesn't sound like David
Grisman Quintet, or the way Peter (Rowan) and Tony (Rice) play, or John Cowan's
band, or like Dark Star. So we can all relax and be ourselves. We all can
relax and be comfortable doing what we do. There is a wide variety, and if we
don't play enough bluegrass, somebody else will!
*Jim: Was there a point when you were working w/ New Grass Revival and you had
had enough of the traditionalists and decided to move forward with your more
panoramic vision, regardless of the backlash?*
Sam: Yeah, 1974! (Laughs) That's when we got John (Cowan). These kinds of
audiences know that all the bands here are a little left of center.
Jim: Jorma Kaukonen, whose Blue Country Heart disc you contributed to, paid you and the other musicians from the sessions a very high compliment. He said
that you, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, and Byron House were the musicians he
really wanted to play with on the disc…
Sam: Well, I always wanted to play with Jorma. I was a huge Jefferson Airplane
fan in high school, and I never thought I'd play with The Captain! First time I
met him, I thought he was the nicest fella. I've always loved his playing and
his singing. It was like, "So what did you do on your Christmas vacation?"
Jim: Do you prefer the front man or the sideman role?
Sam: I guess I prefer the front man because I'm old enough to know what I
really want to do. The bottom line is I prefer playing over not playing. I can
be happy playing in a variety of roles. I don't have to be the front man to
have fun. I'm comfortable with it now, but I'm just as comfortable playing with
Jorma, not saying a word, sitting in a chair, however you want to do it. I've
been fortunate in that way in that I've gotten to play with a lot of different
*Jim: There are a lot of incredible mandolin players in the spotlight today:
Ronnie McCoury, David Grisman… Is there any competition, real or imagined,
between you folks?*
Sam: (Laughs) Not that I'm aware of! David (Grisman) and I, we're probably the
first generation of musicians that has come along that enjoys sharing versus
competing. With David, I never feel competition, I feel communication. David
and I started cutting a CD together in April, 2001, that we have yet to
complete. The idea was that we'd write the tunes and then record them. We've
got about seven or eight tunes, we're over half-way done. Dawg and I have
always had a good communication.
Jim: Who else from the today’s pool of mandolin talent do you enjoy?
Sam: When you think of mandolin players, there are so many great ones I enjoy
hearing. When I name them, I'm always afraid I'll leave some out. Mike
Marshall is still possibly the most gifted mandolin player I've ever met. Chris
Thile (Nickel Creek) goes without saying. Barry Mitterhoff (Kaukonen's Blue
Country Heart Band) tonight – he hasn't been touring around as much as he did in
the 80s, but Barry's always been one of the great unsung mandolin players. Tim
O'Brien, one of the greatest mandolin players you'll ever hear. There's loads!
Adam Steffy, Pat Flynn's pretty terrific. Drew Emmit (Leftover Salmon) is a
great mandolin player. The field's pretty wide right now. Dawg and I are kind
of the older generation. (Laughs)
Jim: Does the popularity of roots music since the Down from the Mountain
soundtrack hit big give you any special satisfaction?
Sam: Yes, it does. It's going to help all of us. It's great to see the
awareness of acoustic music. It's interesting that it takes movies sometimes to
dictate what gets sold in stores. I was about to say airplay, but "Man of
Constant Sorrow" didn't get that much airplay. It's a word-of-mouth thing with
all of the music critics, musicians – and Coen Brothers fans! I bet a lot of
people who bought the soundtrack are not necessarily so much music fans as they
just liked the movie and wanted to seek this music. It's going to help us all-
it is helping us all.
*Jim: Recently I saw Yonder Mountain String Band, and a guy kept yelling out
Sam: (Laughs) I think he thinks George Clooney sang that song. I did play on
that soundtrack. I played on different versions of "Man of Constant Sorrow," but
the one that was used, I didn't play on. Mike Compton did that one. Now
there's a great mandolin player, one of the greatest Bill Monroe-style players,
*Jim: Who would you have liked to have played with but never had the
Sam: Bill Monroe and Chet Atkins… Ray Brown. I did get to play a little
with Lowell George. Robert Johnson. I got to play around a little with John
Duffey, I miss John Duffey. Django Reinhardt! I know I couldn't play with him,
but I could hit some rhythm behind him! (Laughs)
Jim: Is there anyone you regret whom you’ve never seen perform live?
Sam: I would have loved to have been in the audience like my Dad was in the
40s, listening to Bob Wills. In his hey day, I would have loved to see Bob
Wills. I would have loved to sit in the audience for that one!
Jim: Your dad was a big influence on your passion for music?
Sam: Yeah, my Mom and Dad. We're from in Bowling Green, KY, so we grew up just
fifty-five miles north of Nashville. We got Nashville TV and Nashville radio,
so we grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry. So the love of music was within
our family, definitely from my Mom and Dad. My Dad's still alive, always played
the fiddle and the mandolin some. Never for a living. He was a farmer, played
for his own enjoyment. My mother played the guitar, my sisters sang, and my dad
would throw jam sessions at the house. We grew up listening to Tommy Jackson's
fiddle records. Tommy was like the king of the Grand Ole Opry fiddlers in the
50s and 60s. So, yeah, just like that scene in "Coal Miner's Daughter," we sat
around listening to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights.
*Jim: So you got to play with your some of your heroes and now play with some of
today's best acoustic musicians. Not a bad living!*
Sam: I met Peter Rowan when he was playing guitar in Bill Monroe's band back in
1964, and we all have been around each other for a very long time. I've been
like a little brother to Peter and David Grisman. And I'm still getting to hang
with my big brothers!