Sam Bush: Still Rockin' That Bluegrass Train

In the pantheon of bluegrass pickers, Sam Bush is the default leader. Still, Bush remembers playing onstage with Bill Monroe in the early '70s, and after he showcased his kinetic picking technique on the mandolin, Monroe leaned over and told him to “stick to the fiddle”.

Sam Bush is lounging on his bus, surrounded by most of his band members and his tour manager, all of whom are half-attending to a large flat-screen airing Lebron James' “The Decision” broadcast/farce on ESPN. Guitarist Stephen Mougin and drummer Chris Brown are busy ticking away on a smartphone and laptop, respectively, but Bush sits cross-legged staring languidly at the screen. Lebron's choice to take his talents to Miami has leaked, and the guys are all fomenting over this many millions over that many years rumored to be inked into Lebron's deal. Tonight, Bush and his band of ace musicians have brought their talents to downtown St. Louis for a small club show, and I've climbed on board the bus 90-minutes before showtime.

As soon as Bush notices me, he hops up and introduces me to his business partner and wife of 25 years, the lovely and charming Lynn. It's Lynn whom Bush credits for keeping his show on the road as the chief financial officer of his operation. Whatever decisions Lynn has helped make are made impressively manifest in his upscale bus, although he admits that times are tough for musicians everywhere. I asked him, for instance, about John Cowan, vocalist for New Grass Revival, who missed the Telluride Bluegrass Festival for the first time in over a decade, opting instead to fill in on bass for the Doobie Brothers' summer tour. “I tell you, in this economy, you've got to take work where you can find it”, Bush says.

Bush himself is trying to tour more aggressively this year, hitting towns like St. Louis, where he's played only once every few years despite the fact that demand for him, by the looks of tonight's sold-out show is high. The gig is only a couple of blocks from Busch Stadium, home to Bush's beloved Cardinals, another reason, along with the proximity to his Nashville home, that the infrequency of his shows in St. Louis is a puzzler. Bush contends that the numbers game of monetizing tours like these is harder than it looks: “We're lucky to even get a Thursday night gig these days”, he says, referring to tonight's non-weekend show.

The Cardinals t-shirt that Bush is wearing on the bus is probably unrelated to the fact that he's in St. Louis tonight. It's not like he's planning to wear it onstage—he has a nicer, more-formal Cards jersey for that. Then again, he frequently dons Cardinals garb on stage no matter where he's playing. The fact is that Bush is a baseball fanatic and a Cardinals die-hard. You get the feeling that, while he's happy to talk about his new record or to retell old New Grass Revival stories, he'd rather discuss Albert Pujols' batting average or the merits of trading Ryan Ludwick for more starting pitching given the surprising production of Jon Jay. Indeed, Bush refers to the Cardinals as “we”, as in “We have to improve our bullpen."

Tonight, Bush and the band will trot out his original tribute to Hall of Fame Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith (“Hey Ozzie!”), as well as an elegant dueling mandolin version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”. The crowd goes nuts, of course, and Bush tells them, “You're not only an awesome baseball town but an awesome music town." It's a typically sweltering Midwestern summer evening, and the club is a sweaty, roiling boil, as the pickers on stage are drenched just two songs in. At least two of them, Mougin and banjo stud Scott Vestal are seeking relief in the local beers, the other thing St. Louis is famous for.

Bush himself is famous for a few things, too —as a renowned mandolin and fiddle master; a former child prodigy; the longtime frontman of the seminal progressive-bluegrass band, New Grass Revival and, subsequently, the father of the “newgrass” subgenre; and the the main attraction and figurehead of the annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado. In the pantheon of bluegrass pickers, Bush is the default leader. Among the collection of instrumental champs that occasionally play together at festivals—Sam on mandolin, Bela Fleck on banjo, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Bryan Sutton on guitar, Edgar Meyer on bass, etc., everyone knows it's still sort of his show. In the Justice League of Americana, Sam Bush is Superman.

Nowhere is his dominance more pronounced than in Telluride, the annual Mecca of the world's most accomplished acoustic instrumentalists. Even though adulation is a given, no one works harder for the audience's approval than Bush, who has been playing the festival every year since 1975, and his decades of energetic musical derring-do have earned him two hours of prime stage time every Saturday night of the festival as the undisputed King of Telluride, the defining archetype of the festival's mojo. Given the forceful adroitness of his mandolin and fiddle playing, the unabashed courage of his instrumental improvisations, his shaggy-haired playfulness, and his bobbing rhythmic stage moves, Bush embodies the Telluride spirit that thousands pilgrimage every year to soak in.

I always imagine the weight of expectations that Bush stares down when he puts in an appearance with another band's set at Telluride, brought to the stage by, say, Leftover Salmon on the festival's Friday night. Once Bush walks out, the crowd quivers with excitement; the band launches into a barn-burning bluegrass number, gets through a verse and a chorus, and then 10,000 sets of eyes fixate on Bush's hands, everyone expecting him, counting on him, to absolutely bring it. Damned if he doesn't deliver—night after night, year after year—at Telluride. He could walk into a crowded restaurant in most American cities and attract little or no recognition, but in Telluride, Colorado, on the nights around the the summer solstice, Slammin' Sammy is the biggest star in the universe.

“Yeah, there's no pressure there, is there?” he asks sarcastically when asked about those moments. “There is additional pressure to play well because you're surrounded by so many incredible musicians, but, you know, I try to give it everything I have every show I play, whether it's Telluride or a small show somewhere else”. Still, Bush takes his role as the ultimate bluegrass picker very seriously and he's clearly protective of it. “Stephen Mougin is a great mandolin player, which is why you won't hear him playing the mandolin tonight”, he jokes, but he's only half kidding.

At the same time, he readily admits that the reign of any undisputed champ is ultimately finite and that young mandolin savants continually appear to usurp reigning bluegrass royalty and take the music in mind-bending new directions. Bush mentions Mike Marshall, Ronnie McCoury, and, especially, Chris Thile as examples of mandolin players who, in his words, “eat my lunch”. Bush himself was, of course, precisely the kind of hotshot that threatened a generation of bluegrass musicians before him. For example, he remembers playing onstage with Bill Monroe at a bluegrass festival in the early '70s, and after he showcased his kinetic picking technique on the mandolin, Monroe leaned over after the song and told Bush to “stick to the fiddle”.

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