The South Carolina Music Guide
Interviews

Holding Court with The King of Newgrass

Sam Bush is a man of many talents with a list of accomplishments that would have other musicians his age ready to call it a career. He is an originator of progressive bluegrass, a multi-time Grammy winner, an AMA Lifetime Achievement Award winner, and multi-time IBMA Mandolin player of the year. Given his accomplishments, nobody would blame Bush if he were to rest on his laurels and take it easy. But that’s not this story-teller’s style. Sam Bush is a musician that has a way to spin a tale and string together words and sounds that is truly innovative, inspiring and ever evolving. As long as there are still stories to be told, you’ll be able to find Sam doing what he loves. Singing, smiling, and spreading joy by sharing his music.  Sam took some time out of his schedule to chat with Jacob Boland while restringing his Mandolin in a hotel room in Rifle, Colorado.  Check out what he had to say about how ‘Newgrass’ originated, some memorable Merlefest experiences and what the future holds for the living legend of Newgrass.

JB: You’re known as the ‘Father’ or ‘King of Newgrass’, can you give me a rough definition of what ‘Newgrass’ is and tell me how you became known as the prominent musician in this genre?

SB: How I became known as that? I just kept doing it, I guess. But really, the short answer I would define as playing contemporary music on traditional Bluegrass instruments, being banjo, mandolin, fiddle, bass, and dobro. It kinda all got started in the ’60’s with people such as the Osborne Brothers, Jim and Jesse, The Dillards, The Country Gentlemen and The Greenbriar Boys, etc.

When these artists started departing from the traditions of Bill Monroe and traditional bluegrass, it kind of became interesting to people like me. I was born in 1952, so I grew up hearing and loving the sounds of Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers. They had departed from the norms of what Bluegrass was at the time, and that’s what interested me. In that way, I think Newgrass music started in the ’60’s with the artists I mentioned. Then, when ‘Newgrass Revival’ came along in the early ’70’s, people were looking for different and clever  ways to use the name grass or ‘Newgrass’, so ‘Newgrass’ seemed to be what we were doing. We were trying to produce a different  kind of bluegrass. The band that predated us, The Bluegrass Alliance, had a second album named ‘Newgrass’. These words were being bantered around so we just thought  about  ‘Newgrass Revival’ as a way to revive a style we had learned from the ‘Newgrass’ artists in the ’60’s. So in a way, ‘Newgrass Revival’ was a fortunate name to come up with. Now, people refer to Progressive Bluegrass as ‘Newgrass’. But, as far as how I came up with the name, I don’t know. I mean honestly, I’ve continued to do it and I like the way ‘Newgrass Revival’ plays a role in the history of bluegrass.

JB: How did growing up on a farm in Kentucky influence you?

SB: Actually quite a lot. To cut right to the chase, I couldn’t just ride my bike to town to horse around with other kids when I wanted. But really, the Bush kids, we grew up in a family that loved music and they encouraged us to play. I have thought about that a lot, growing up on the farm, because I wasn’t just able to go down the street and get in trouble. Then, once I started learning mandolin at age 11, that’s where all my attention went when I got home from school. Then a fiddle entered my life at age 13 and I got really serious about practicing fiddle and entering fiddle contests. So really, I think farm life, at the time, really helped to channel all that young energy into learning instruments. Plus, we were close enough to Nashville that I could watch my musical heroes and watch how their hands worked. It was like having my own teaching videos at the time. I didn’t realize not everyone got to watch Bill Monroe on TV like I did. So, that was a very fortunate thing to grow up somewhat close in proximity to the Grand Ole Opry.

JB: Now, you routinely play to huge crowds at festivals such as Merlefest and Rocky Grass, but you also play more intimate venues. What do you enjoy about the more intimate performances?

SB: Well, we can actually interact because you can see the audience. At a larger festival, you are interacting with the audience but you’re really sort of powering through it and playing to a larger situation. I like the intimacy of things in a smaller venue due to the communication with the audience and I believe the audience enjoys getting to see us up close. I think it’s fun for the audience to watch us work a little closer.

JB: That being said, what’s one of your most memorable festival experiences or performances?

SB: Oh wow, I’ve just been fortunate to be in a lot. You know, some things that play a role in my mind and I wax poetically about, I think about all the times I got to play with Doc Watson at Merlefest. I think that was a pretty privileged chair to sit in because most of the people that did play with Doc were local and Carolina boys. When Doc used to shake my hand he’d say, “there’s that good ol’ Kentucky handshake”, so playing with Doc Watson at Merlefest anytime. Another favorite moment was just before he died, when some of us banded together for a tribute to John Hartford at Merlefest. This past time at Telluride playing with Tedeschi Trucks. Overall, I feel fortunate in that I don’t know if I played my favorite show yet.

JB: Storyman, released in 2016, has been heavily praised by critics. Tell me just a little bit about what went into making this album.

SB: It was the first time where I made a conscious attempt to, at least, co-write all the songs. So for me, it’s a singer/songwriter record, even though it’s just me and the band. Hopefully it sounds like the music we play while on stage. A friend of mine, Victor Kraus, nicknamed me Storyman years ago. It is an appropriate name because many of my songs start out as personal stories from both myself and fellow song co-writer, Jeff Black. I was actually just telling Jeff about a couple stories and we turned them into songs on ‘The Circles Around Me’ album. On Storyman, there’s a song called ‘Transcendental Meditation Blues’. It’s a tale from the Summer of 1978 when the transmission went out in my car. All Summer I would take the Greyhound bus to Louisville to see my girlfriend, Lynn. Part of the story is the Greyhound bus breaking down on the way to see her, but she was waiting for me when I finally arrived!  Fast forward, and we are celebrating 35 years of marriage this year. There’s also another song based on a light-hearted theory that when people quit playing guitars, country music was killed off.  So, Emmy Lou Harris and I wrote ‘Hand Mics Killed Country Music’. The bonus was creating it with Emmy Lou, which is always a treat. Obviously, there’s a thriving country music industry which we were just kidding about! We were just writing about how we missed the fact that we like to look at peoples guitars when they’re singing. There’s also another song, ‘Carcinoma Blues’, which was written with Guy Clark. Both of us wrote it after talking and realizing we both had this cancer and we made up a little song. It comes from the point of view from both the patient and the person that loves the patient watching them go through the ordeal. So, Storyman is a collection of my life stories.

JB: What does the near future hold for Sam Bush?

SB: Well, we’re putting out a rock and roll single! A YouTube video single will probably come out in February. It’s a song Jeff Black and I wrote about ten years ago when we were discussing the fact that we didn’t like that our society has become very violent and mean spirited. The song is called ‘Stop the Violence’, and we are sincere in that thought. We aren’t trying to be political or save the world. We’re just two songwriters wishing for a less violent society. Scott plays the banjo synthesizer, Steven switches to electric guitar, and I switch over to my Fender electric mandolin. It’s the first time I felt strongly about something that I wanted to say. After that, we’ll go back in the studio with our acoustic instruments and cut a new album hopefully in April. We’re moving right along!  The new documentary ‘Revival: The Sam Bush Story’ is on Amazon now. We’re inching towards a DVD release so people can get a copy.  A lot of good things going down, we’re out on the road and I’m enjoying playing music!

Sam Bush will be stopping by the historic Newberry Opera House on February 7th. For tickets and information on the show, check out the Newberry Opera house website. To learn more about Sam Bush like his Facebook page and to check out more of his music, visit his website here.

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