Sam Bush: Still Rockin’ That Bluegrass Train

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”.

Music Keeps ‘Em Young

At that point, Bush had already won a handful of national fiddle championships as the boy wonder from Bowling Green, Kentucky. He was still only a teenager when he formed New Grass Revival, a band that lasted until 1989, albeit in two distinct permutations. The ’70s New Grass Revival comprised of Bush, John Cowan (replacing original bassist Ebo Walker), Curtis Burch on guitar, and the late Courtney Johnson on banjo. In 1981, Burch and Johnson were replaced by Pat Flynn and Bela Fleck, the lineup that saw the band trading the hippie, John-Hartford-disciples vibe for a glammier, more-electrified sound and look. The result was the band’s first real commercial breakthrough and Top 40 success, but just as soon as they started scoring hit singles, the band called it quits. “Success did us in”, says Bush.

In the post-New Grass Revival years, Bush has played on hundreds (thousands?) of albums as one of Nashville’s top-of-the-wish-list studio aces. He was the musical director of Emmylou Harris’s Nash Ramblers band for a time, but by the late ’90s, Bush’s decades as one of roots music’s most consistently electrifying instrumentalists and live performers increased his stock. As a result, Bush would go out with a rotating lineup of the world’s most versatile bluegrass ringers, which he would call the Sam Bush Band. This year’s incarnation — Moughin on guitar, Vestal on bass, Brown on drums, and brand-new recruit Todd Parks on bass—is touring in support of Bush’s sixth solo studio album, last year’s Circles Around Me, and he’s clearly hungry to play the new material for audiences like tonight’s.

One thing Bush isn’t keen on anytime soon is a full-blown New Grass Revival reunion. The 30-year anniversary of the formation of the Bush-Fleck-Cowan-Flynn version of New Grass Revival hits in 2011. I ask him—since Bush, Fleck, and Cowan meet at Telluride every year—why not scratch the itch of the faithful by billing a headline set as New Grass Revival? “Because I don’t want to”, Bush answers with a sigh. The anticipation surrounding such an event would be intense, which is partially why Bush is reluctant to restage the band. “We’d have to rehearse for months ahead of time”, he says, somewhat surprisingly, given the alacrity with which these players jam spontaneously with each other and other acts.

Making it look easy is a key aspect of such immense talent, but Bush insists that a New Grass Revival, er, revival wouldn’t be simple at all. “We can collaborate with each other—I can jam with Bela, or Bela can jump on stage with Cowan or whatever, but something about the combination of all of us alone together… within a few minutes, we’re all thinking, ‘Oh, yeah. I remember your ass’”. Bush is quick to point out that it isn’t a matter of bad blood, however; it’s the inevitable result of getting too many natural leaders in the same group.

“Bela and John have been the leaders of their own bands for years now, and I like being the leader of my own band, and no one’s eager to give that up”. He remembers that Bela wanted to quit before New Grass’ last album, 1989’s Friday Night in America, but was talked into one more album and tour before the band dissolved, thereby resulting in a sort of Big Bang of progressive bluegrass. “I remember telling Lynn when I first saw Bela with [the Flecktones] that this was exactly what Bela ought to be doing”.

Bush clearly still loves his own job, as well, one that he’s been doing now for 40-plus years. Such longevity is complemented by the fact that he seems to have a sort of Dorian Gray thing going on; despite the fact that he’s two years away from turning 60, he still looks and moves much like the kid who first came on the scene with his wiry frame and lion’s locks. He has, however, had his share of physical ailments, including two bouts with cancer—beaten since 1987—and, more recently, bone-spur surgery on his foot.

Still, sitting just inches away from him, I was even more impressed with his remarkably youthful visage, so asked him for his secret: “Genes, I guess. My dad didn’t start turning gray until his was almost 70. Plus, music keeps you young. It’s finding something you love doing. I remember even when I had cancer, I’d feel terrible, exhausted all day, but when I got onstage, it was like I wasn’t sick at all”.

Close calls have, naturally, given Bush a keen perception of time, and life in the music industry has placed him close to a long list of mentors and fellow travelers who have gone on before him, including Bill Monroe, Courtney Johnson, bassist Roy Huskey, Jr., and others, and he articulates a transcendental awareness of his existence and the influences of those both here and gone in the title cut of Circles Around Me. It’s his father, Charlie, who died in 2008, however, that Bush talks to me about most. Charlie was a farmer and fiddle-music lover, whose records young Bush he mined for inspiration. He tells me a story about getting bucked off a horse as a child, a foggy memory that he verified with his dad shortly before Charlie died. “I asked him, ‘Did I dream that or did that really happen?’ and he said, ‘Oh, it happened all right’”.

Bush has a sharp memory, as it turns out, easily reeling off specific dates as he tells stories (“That was in the fall of 1974…”), and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of country music history. When I mention that my father was in an obscure Nashville band in the ’60s called the Homesteaders, his eyes light up. He can tell me the names of every member of the band and then starts singing an old 45 single by the group, rattling off the first verse and chorus as if he’d just rehearsed it, his left hand forming phantom mandolin chords in the air.

Moments later, Lynn reminds him that it’s time to write the setlist for tonight’s show, signaling that our interview is over. A half-hour later, the band is onstage whipping the crowd into a frenzy with bangers like “Riding That Bluegrass Train” and “Bringing in the Georgia Mail”. When Bush plays standards like “Uncle Pen” and, later, a medley of the Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” and fiddle/banjo standard “Cripple Creek”, the crowd jigs and shouts, causing Bush to march in place a little harder at the microphone, bopping up and down during one sizzling solo after another, as though a lifetime of musical adventure, the passion of the crowd, and the ghosts of his past, are all forming circles around him and dancing, too.