Sam Bush is a veteran of the progressive bluegrass scene, having been a founder member of New Grass Revival in the early 1970s. Since that group split in 1989, Bush has enjoyed stints with Emmylou Harris’s Nash Ramblers, been a session musician for a number of country and bluegrass musicians, and released seven solo albums. He has been a restless explorer of musical genres, applying himself to rock, blues, funk, and jazz along the way. Circles Around Me is his eighth album and appears, like the five before it, on the roots label Sugar Hill. It provides an excellent showcase for his talents as mandolin player, fiddler, singer, and songwriter as well as a reminder of his role in promoting the “newgrass” phenomenon.
The first four tracks work effectively as a capsule of Bush’s main styles. The title track opens with fingerpicked guitar before Bush’s mandolin and Scott Vestal’s banjo enter gently. The voice is similarly subdued, a soft country burr rather than full-throated bluegrass vocals. Here, as in later songs on the album, Bush brings to mind James Taylor; many of his contemporary songs (as opposed to the traditional numbers or bluegrass classics) evoke the post-Taylor 1970s AOR style that provided the basic aesthetic for country rock and progressive roots bands such as the New Grass Revival. It’s a nostalgic song, then, and one that takes Bush full circle even as it deploys a lyric about having circles run around him. As the song progresses, it receives solid support from the other members of Bush’s band (Byron House on bass, Chris Brown on drums, and Stephen Mougin on guitar), ending in a space somewhere between rock and bluegrass.
Mandolin kicks off the second track—a take on the traditional “Diamond Joe”—and the pace is immediately increased, the vocals more strained. Vestal’s banjo keeps the track rolling along, and Mougin takes a neat guitar break. The group shifts up another gear with a version of “You Left Me Alone” by Tom Gray & Jerry Stuart, which employs harmony vocals throughout and attains the illusion of timelessness that the best bluegrass and old-time music can evoke. Bush’s mandolin is at its most Bill Monroe-esque here, and the banjo attains that strange combination of tightness and looseness that is one of bluegrass’s most appealing features. The fourth track is an instrumental, a slow and sad number entitled “The Old North Woods” written by Bush and saturated with the ringing tones of his mandolin and Mougin’s harmony mandolin. Extra violins, under the arrangement of guest bassist Edgar Meyer, add welcome texture.
The remainder of the album provides variations on these main types of Bush material. “Blue Mountain” and “Junior Heywood” are instrumental workouts that act as showcases for the band. “Blue Mountain” is a celebration of newgrass possibilities, allowing as much space for an electric bass break as for the more “traditional” instruments. “Junior Heywood” adds Jerry Douglas’s dobro and Edgar Meyer’s bowed bass to broaden the sound palette. Both tracks are utterly compelling and add considerable variety to the musical program.
“Roll on Buddy, Roll On” and “Midnight on the Deep” feature bluegrass legend Del McCoury on guitar and vocals, and provide classic harmony singing; both are songs associated with Bill Monroe, and the versions are as faithful as they could be. “The Ballad of Stringbean And Estelle” is in a less classic style, but retains a Monroe connection, telling the somber tale of the murder of Monroe’s former banjoist David “Stringbean” Akeman. It’s co-written by Bush, Verlon Thompson, and Guy Clark, the three musicians having collaborated previously on Clark’s fine Boats to Build album.
“Souvenir Bottles” and “Gold Heart Locket” are newgrass songs, though quite distinct. The former, a reconstruction of a 1979 New Grass Revival classic, is a band-on-the-road reminiscence that intersperses its verses about (now long-gone) days of carousing with extended instrumental breaks. “Gold Heart Locket”, again featuring Douglas, is the finest of the new songs. Bush sets it going with a beautiful mandolin melody and a heartfelt vocal. Like “Circles Around Me”, it comes from the pen of Jeff Black and is another of those post-Taylor 1970s countryesque numbers, all rolling banjos, dobro, and keening harmony vocals at the chorus.
Bush officially closes the album (and the circle) by reprising another New Grass Revival song, the early “Whisper My Name”. But it’s not quite over, as a bonus cut of Robert Johnson’s “Hot Tamales” unexpectedly provides the funkiest, catchiest number of the collection. It’s a sign that, while Sam Bush may be circling home, he’s still got the inclination to head off down the road again.
All in all, this is an excellent collection of material from a practitioner at the top of his game. It should appeal both to hardcore bluegrass fans and to those desirous of a trip back to the progressive spirit of the 1970s, arguably one of country music’s most interesting decades.
// Notes from the Road
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