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Published: 2004/07/30
by Mick Skidmore

Sam Bush, Mahavishnu Mountain Boy

Sam Bush has been a pioneering musician for the past three decades. His virtuoso mandolin and fiddle playing has graced hundreds of albums and, of course, he's been a member some extremely important groups that have expanded the boundaries of bluegrass, most notably the Bluegrass Alliance and the New Grass Revival, both of these outfits were influential as they infused elements blues, rock, reggae and jazz with the more traditional fare.

The New Grass Revival went through some personnel changes during its 18 year existence but is generally regarded by most progressive bluegrass, newgrass or jamgrass bands to be one of the most important and influential.

Later Bush was in the bluegrass supergroup Strength In Numbers, a member of Emmylou Harris's acoustic band The Nash Ramblers and toured with Bela Fleck & the Flecktones. In recent years Bush has formed his own band and embarked on a very musically rewarding solo career and his most release is King of the World. He also recently recorded a great album with friend David Grisman, Hold on We’re Strummin’.

What follows is an interview with the extremely affable, knowledgeable and remarkably down-to-earth Bush in which he talks about his varied career and the people he has worked with.

M.S. Why don’t you start by telling us about your background, what got you into playing and choosing the instrument that you did?

S.B. Sure, I started playing mandolin around the age of 11. I grew on a farm outside of Bowling Green, Kentucky. My mom played music and my dad who is still living plays the fiddle and the mandolin, although professionally he is a farmer. My mother played guitar. So, I grew up in a household in which music was played and encouraged. On Friday and Saturday nights we would listen to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. Bowling Green is only 55 miles north of Nashville so we could also watch TV stations that were from Nashville. We got channel 4 which was WSM and they had a lot of things. On Saturday afternoon there'd be like four or five Grand Ole Opry stars that had shows like Bill Anderson, Porter Wagoner, Ernest Tubb, the Wilburn Brothers and the final one of the day was Flatt and Scruggs. So, I grew up with that.

My dad was a fan of fiddle music although he was mostly a Hank Williams fan but he listened to a lot, and particularly fiddle records by a guy named Tommy Jackson. Tommy was sort of known as the guy that started a lot of the country style music fiddle. He was the most well-known and he made square dance records and also on these records there would be a mandolin player taking solos. I later found out that the mandolin player was, in fact, the jazz guitar player Hank Garland, but he was so good he could play note for note for what Tommy played on the fiddle. So really I got interested in mandolin through listening to these records and of course I was interested in fiddle so I started playing mandolin when I was around 11 and then the fiddle at 13.

I have always loved to play the mandolin the most. Most people that play both are usually fiddle players that also play the mandolin but with me and Tim O'Brien we are both mandolin players that also play the fiddle. But that is how it got going. It was later that I started listening to Bill Monroe because the love of the mandolin led me to search out who the great mandolin players were. My dad always thought Jethro Burns was the best, and it turns out that my two biggest influences are Bill Monroe and Jethro, Bill for the bluegrass and the rhythm, and Jethro for the jazz. When I was about 12, two of my older sisters were playing folk music so I played with them as well and through that I made the acquaintance with bluegrass musicians and bluegrass bands. By the time I got in high school I was playing in a bluegrass band and I'd be the youngest guy.

M.S. Did you get into rock at some point?

S.B. Yes, at some point I started messing around with the electric guitar and had fun playing in rock bands in high school. Then I played the upright bass in the school orchestra. Even though my sisters would buy some Beatles singles, it wasn't until they did the Rubber Soul album and I heard "I've Just Seen a Face" and to me that sounded like a bluegrass song, and that kind of attracted me to the Beatles and that led me to explore and learn more about rock and roll. By the time I was a junior in high school I'd become a large fan of the Beatles and the Jefferson Airplane. In high school rock bands was the only time I got to play with people my own age.

M.S. How did you end up becoming a professional musician?

S.B. When I graduated high school in 1970 I was 18 I moved from Bowling Green up to Louisville, Kentucky. I was invited to join a band called the Bluegrass Alliance and they had this great guitar player named Dan Crary and when he left, I first went up to Louisville to be their guitar player. After I had been in the band a very short while we went to a festival in Reedsville and I saw the world's skinniest man sitting on somebody's guitar case playing a Martin guitar and it turned out to be this kid that was a year older than me. It was Tony Rice. We asked Tony to join the band and I switched over to mandolin. I got back on my number one instrument. From that point on I was playing music for a living. I think when I first moved up to Louisville we played for about 11 weeks at a bar, five nights a week. That was the kind of work we did. Five nights a week, three sets a night really sharpens up your chops.

M.S. So did the Bluegrass Alliance evolve into the New Grass Revival?

S.B. It did in fact. By the time the fall of 1971 came around Tony Rice had left and Curtis Burch replaced him. He is also a great dobro player. All four members of the Revival, Curtis, Courtney Johnson on banjo, Ebo Walker on bass and me were all in the Bluegrass Alliance and we had a fiddle player Lonnie Pierce and we had sort of a falling out with Lonnie and we asked him to leave the band and that was when he informed us that we couldn't fire him because he owned the name of the band, and he did. So, we said let us put it this way, all four of us quit. So, basically the four original members of New Grass Revival ran the Bluegrass Alliance and we just made New Grass Revival our name.

M.S. I’m sure that when you formed the New Grass Revival you could never have imagined that it would have such an impact on both progressive bluegrass music and up and coming bands. So many bands these days cite NGR as an influence. Did you set out consciously with a purpose for mixing different styles of music together or did it just evolve?

S.B. Well, I don't know how conscious we were. We were not out to change anything. We were basically doing what the old southern musicians saying says, "do it cause it feels good." And really what happened, when I look back to my high school influences I had already listened to rock and roll but by this time you had people like the Dillards who had gone country-rock and that was real exciting, there was the Dillard and Clark Expedition, the Byrds and the Burrito Brothers were doing interesting things, so we were listening to all that stuff too, so out of my love of, and others we all like rock and roll we just kind of started playing rock songs with bluegrass instruments.

We used to do some Elton John, we'd try doing a few Beatles tunes, but we never recorded these things. We did a version of "Norwegian Wood" and we did "Get Back." Then really we took the idea of extended jamming and we took that from jazz and rock and roll. We may have been one of the first to do it on bluegrass instruments but it was around. It really comes from people like the Cream, the extended jam. I listened to Jefferson Airplane's live record (Bless its Pointed Little Head). I got interested in the jamming aspect of it. I guess we were kind going with our influences and letting them come through because by calling the band New Grass Revival we don't feel like we invented newgrass so to speak. In other words we kind of went another step further and carried on things that the Country Gentlemen, The Dillards, Jim and Jesse, and the Osborne Brothers, we felt that they had already broken that ground. In the 60s Jim and Jesse did a whole record of Chuck Berry songs bluegrass style, Berry Picking Time in the Country.

M.S. What was the early reaction of people to the band? Was it difficult to get gigs?

S.B. No, we got a lot of gigs. We worked real cheap! When we first got going we were a little far out for some of the traditional audiences and there were other places for us to play. There were a lot of festivals coming up at that time in America. We tended to play on the ones that featured bluegrass as well as country rock like Earl Scruggs, sometimes the Dillards, John Hartford, we'd play on those kinds of festivals and really up until disco in 1976 we played a lot of colleges. The colleges were into our kind of stuff. Then once disco hit that kind of killed acoustic music in colleges until the last ten years.

M.S. I must have at least 100 albums that you’re on. The list of people that you have played with is quite incredible.

S.B. I have been fortunate to have been employed!

M.S. Do you have any idea how many albums you have played on?

S.B. Not really. A person sent me a notebook, I'm looking at it now, he says something about the fact that I have played on about 1300 cuts. I guess that means different songs.

M.S. That’s incredible. Having been on so many different sessions are there any that stand out above others?

S.B. Yes, there are certain things that I have been on that give me pleasant memories. The first time I ever got to record with Doc Watson in 1974 on a record called Memories, and Merle Watson and a guy named Charles Cochran produced it. That one was kind of a display of all the different styles Doc had played throughout the years, one of the things was that Doc wanted to play this old time tune like his father-in-law did and later told me that I played it so much like Gaither Carlton that it made Rose Lee (his daughter) cry. That was pretty special.

There's a record, Manzanita, by Tony Rice. There was some really unique things about that record. One of the things we did was we did a bluegrass record without a banjo. That was the first time that I got to play with Jerry Douglas on a record and the first time on a project with Ricky Skaggs, so basically the group on it Ricky Skaggs, Jerry, Me, Tony, a bass player named Todd Phillips and on a couple tunes, David Grisman. David and I had known each other since I met him in 1965 at arguably one of the first bluegrass festivals in Roanoke, Virginia. Getting to play on that Manzanita record was special because the people I played with became pals.

Strength in Numbers, again we were five friends (Jerry Douglas, Fleck, Mark O'Connor and Edgar Meyer) that were able to get together for a couple of months and channel our energies and record. We've always hoped that we could do it again, but I don't think we'll ever get our schedules in time. Fortunately everybody is too busy, but I feel pretty great about that album.

I'm also incredibly proud of the Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers album Live at the Ryman. It's funny that was the year that Milli Vanilli won that Grammy and they didn't actually sing on their record and we won that year for country vocal group and our record was a totally unfixed and live recording. We played the same songs each night and they picked the best ones. I was really proud of the fact that we could cut this live album with no fixing. We had so much fun in that band and Emmylou is a great band leader and a great person. I learned more about singing from her than anyone.

M.S. So with all the session work you done how have you found time to create a solo career?

S.B. Well, I made a solo record back in '83 but I guess I really didn't start until later. The New Grass Revival's last job was New Year's Eve 1989 opening for the Grateful Dead. It was a Grateful Dead show with the New Grass Revival and Bonnie Raitt. It was at the Oakland Coliseum. That was our last. Man, what a way to go out on top. Then I had really planned on trying to get off the road having done nothing but been on the road for my entire adult life at the point. I was burned out. I wanted to play session, but Emmylou called up with this idea of putting an acoustic band together so that sounded intriguing. I never dreamt that I would spend five years in Emmylou's band and it was a great time.

That lasted until 1995 and later in '95 Bela Fleck asked me to play with the Flecktones, so I think in that year I did like 60 shows with the Flecktones, so basically I was the fourth member of that for a while. They recorded a bunch of live cuts and that came out on his record Live Art and that’s when I won my second Grammy. I’ve got a country vocal Grammy, a pop instrumental Grammy and later on I won one for playing on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.

I think after singing with Emmylou for five years and improvising with Bela, learning more about singing and rediscovering the joys of improvising that led me back into wanting to make my own records again. Really I never thought of making my own records because I was always in a group. Out of that I wanted pick and sing more and I started making my own records again. So it was really kind of a natural evolution. I just kind of got started back into it.

M.S. So on the new album are the players a regular band that you record and tour with?

S.B. Yes it is. 24 hours from now we'll be on a bus headed for New Jersey. The band at this time is of course, Byron House on the bass, fretless, acoustic and electric. He is a great harmony singer. Byron and I are both from Bowling Green so we have known each other since we were kids. I am a little older than Byron but his dad and my mother both worked at Sears and Roebuck. We have been on bands on and off for many years. In 1980 we started up a jamming band called Duck Butter and we just play rock songs and songs by the Cream. We are the only band that I have ever that does "The Hand That Cried Today" by Blind Faith. It takes a great singer to do that and John Cowan sings with us. We still occasionally, once or twice a year play a Duck Butter job, but Byron has been in my band since 1998.

Our drummer is Chris Brown. Chris took Larry Atamanuik's place, Larry played with me on my first couple of records and he was the drummer with the Nash Ramblers. But any Chris Brown comes from a background of jazz. I think he spent like three years in Maynard Ferguson's Big Band. He is very versatile; in fact it's amazing how versatile he is. When we play a bluegrass style song you hardly notice him but if we do reggae or rock style things you do notice him.

Our guitar player is a guy named Brad Davis. He spent 10 or 11 years playing with Marty Stuart and on occasion he has been playing on the road with Earl Scruggs. Brad has been in the band for about a year and a half. Before that he was playing in a rock band with Billy Bob Thornton, so Brad is a real good electric guitar player but in our band he specializes on acoustic guitar. It's pretty unique if you listen to the latest CD, on a song called "A Better Man" which I learned from Keb Mo' and "Bless His Heart." On both those tunes Brad uses a second string bender for the acoustic guitar. It works with a foot pedal with a cable that runs up to his headstock. Brad is not only an incredible flat picker but he has invented his own way to use a string bender on an acoustic guitar. Brad is also a great singer, so within that we have a good vocal trio. It's a quartet and I really love that format because we have a great rhythm section.

M.S. What kind of audience do you get? Is it cross-genres and generations?

S.B. All of it. Fortunately because now we are starting to get on some shows where it would be considered jambands, I guess. I mean we are playing Bonnaroo and then the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. They call it a bluegrass festival but it is wide open to all kinds of music. We find a lot of our winter time work is in Performing Arts Centers and that's an older audience. You got a look at it this way, I'm 52 and people in the audience are the same age as me I guess you are going to say it's a middle aged audience. Sometimes you look up and say "God, how did I get this old," but on the other hand 52 feels pretty young to me. The music is keeping me young.

M.S. You had a very broad career but is there anything that you’d really like to do that you haven’t play with someone, make a certain type of album?

S.B. Yeah, but you know it's one of those things where I like to take it as it comes. I'd like to explore some blues kind of styles on an upcoming CDs and that's one of the things that is going to happen. I've still got heroes that I have never gotten to play with. I am an incredible fan of Jean Luc Ponty's. I bought his first record when I was in high school called Sunday Walk. Even then he was actually playing electric fiddle.

M.S. There’s that cut on the new album, "Mahavishnu Mountain Boys…"

S.B. Well, that was something that somebody said one day to the New Grass Revival. We played some complicated arrangements at a festival somewhere and a guy comes up to us and says "Hey who the hell to think you are anyway, the Mahavishnu Mountain Boys?" I think, we said, "Yes, I guess we do." But that particular tune is because I'm a huge John McLaughlin fan. They had an album that came out a couple of years ago; it was this Mahavishnu Orchestra album that never came out The Lost Trident Sessions.

M.S. Yes, that’s a great album.

S.B. Well, it kind of got me real turned on them again. I rediscovered them and got all turned on to them again after listening to that album, so I started thinking about this fiddle tune and how could I make a fiddle tune sound like a Mahavishnu Orchestra tune. First, I had a fast melody which was probably influenced by Byron Berline and Kenny Baker, but then I got to thinking about slowing it down in 7/4 timing and make that a Mahuavishnu Orchestra sound. So that "Mahavishnu Mountain Boys" seems to fit that song well.

M.S You recently did a real nice album with David Grisman, Hold On We’re Strummin’. Was that a heavily-arranged album or are treatments more spontaneous?

S.B. We sat down and worked it out. Back when I first met him in 1965 he was the first person to let me play a Gibson F5, up until then I the little A model, pear shaped. I was in a jam session and this guy came by, and David's not that much older than I am, he just handed me this mandolin and said "Hey man, play a good mandolin." David let me play his F5 and we became to be mandolin buddies over the years, but especially when Tony Rice rejoined David's band. They would hire to play on the records. We did a lot of jamming. David just loves to jam. We talked about making this record for probably 25 years (laughs).

When we first started talking about it there was the possibility of like a trio record with Jethro Burns, David and I, and of course that never came to be as Jethro died in the late 80s, so it got to be the year 2001 and we knew our friend John Hartford was sick again, John had first had cancer in the 80s and he had been in remission for a long time and then the cancer resurfaced. Knowing a mutual friend of ours was sick, it kind of made us say to ourselves we need to do this, let's don't wake up one day and one of us is unable to do it and regret that we didn't do it. So, David and I made a conscious effort in 2001 and we wrote seven or eight tunes at that point. We would write them and record them that day.

So when we first started it was just the two of us and then later we decided we probably should put bass on some of these tunes to make it more interesting throughout the album. Then we both got really busy. In fact, we both played on a lot of the same jobs throughout 2002. We did the Jamgrass tour in 2002. David's band and our band were on like 23 shows together. It was a lot of fun.

We got too busy to finish our record then it got to be about January of 2003 and we said come on we got get down and do this. So I spent most of the month of January out in California with David at his Dawg Studios which is part of his house. We finally got it finished. We re-cut a couple of things that we had done. The first tune is called "Hartford's Reel" that was the first one we wrote. We were talking and thinking about John that day and that tune reminded us of the kind of tune John might play, so we recorded it just as a duet and then them we later cut it with James Kerwin on bass and Jack Lawrence on guitar, and I overdubbed some fiddle on it. But if you go to the end of Hold On We’re Strummin’ and I think it takes like 35 or 40 seconds and there's the duet version of that song.

M.S. One of the things I like about your stuff even the more intense and complex jams is that there is an intrinsic melodic element.

S.B. That was our goal. There are a couple of tunes on that album where we did have a couple of little melodies but we didn't have a plan and we just jammed an improvised and turned on the tape to see what happened. One of those I think is called "Jam Grass 741." For that one David had a melody and I had a melody and we did a lot of jamming on that tune. There were a couple of spots where we improvised and we feel like we do that well together but we didn't want that to take up too much space because we felt like we wanted to make compositions that young mandolin players would want to play. Nothing would thrill us more than to hear mandolin pickers playing the tunes we wrote.

M.S. On a parting note if you had to pick five favorite albums could you?

S.B. Close maybe. Aero-Plane by John Hartford, Leon Russell and the Shelter People, there was a Bill Monroe record; I think the title is All Time Country Favorites. It's hard to pick just five.

M.S. It’s interesting to see what music artists listen to and admire.

S.B. Melodically, The Beatles Let It BeLet It Bleed by the Rolling Stones, and there’s a record by Homer and Jethro called It Ain’t Necessarily Square. That’s a tremendous record. So that’s some of them right and I have to say One Man Dog by James Taylor. There were two three instrumentals on that record that John McLaughlin wrote and plays on. It's unbelievable. So, I'm into it man, I'm into all this stuff.

M.S. Are there any up and coming or newer bands that have impressed you?

S.B. I'm a fan of Nickel Creek. I produced Chris [Thile's] second solo record. It was called Stealing Second. Chris and I are baseball buddies as well. I like a lot of bands. When you think that Del McCoury's sons are not that old, most of that band is pretty young except for Del. They are a great band. I'm a large fan of the Nashville Bluegrass Band but then again one of them is as old as me. I like the Yonder Mountain String Band, oh man, I'm leaving someone out. Blue Highway I really like them a lot. The way I get to hear a lot of new music is I really like XM radio. I hear a lot of bands that I normally wouldn't have heard.

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