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With his neatly trimmed beard and shoulder-length, semi-feathered hair, mandolinist Sam Bush looks more like a lost Doobie Brother than a musical anarchist. But after more than a quarter-century operating in and around the country and bluegrass scenes, he's still looked at with suspicion by those listeners who prefer the tried and true to the untested and quixotic.
"At age 46, to still be thought of as a young renegade is amazing," he says. "I mean, all I have to do is put my mandolin on and do what I do naturally, and some people will have the perception that I'm bucking the system."
Funny thing is, they'd be right. With the New Grass Revival, the quintessential progressive bluegrass band, Bush and his fellow adventurers (most notably banjoist Bela Fleck and bassist John Cowan) took roots music where it had never been before, much to the dismay of the genre police, who saw the act's fondness for style-mixing as completely heretical. And although New Grass disbanded in 1989 after playing a final show with (gasp) the Grateful Dead, Bush hasn't mended his daring ways. He drove the Nash Ramblers, a not-quite-country/not-quite-bluegrass ensemble that supported Emmylou Harris, for five years and spent a considerable stretch playing with Fleck's group, the Flecktones, and Lyle Lovett, a man who's never been accused of being a conformist. And the music Bush has made with his own band, which he put together in 1996, has been far from predictable. "I try not to get locked into any one style," he remarks about the combo, which features New Grass vet Cowan as well as onetime Ramblers Larry Atamanuik and Jon Randall Stewart. "To me, it's exciting to try different things."
The two albums Bush has made for the Sugar Hill imprint bear out these words. Glamour & Grits, from 1996, overflows with fast picking and quick changes, and the new Howlin' at the Moon covers just as many bases. The latest instrumentals range from the hushed, deliberate "Ozzie & Max" and the fusion-like "Funk 42" to the crazed picking of "Big Rabbit" and "Cloverleaf Rag." The vocal pieces are equally varied: The title cut, co-written by Jim Ratts of Denver's Runaway Express and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's John McEuen, sounds as bluegrassy as all get-out, but it's followed by "Face Tomorrow," which has an almost Celtic feel, and "Hold On," co-composed by a tunesmith with virtually no connection to country music, Steve Winwood. Likewise, a pair of tributes to the late Roy Huskey Jr., a bassist for the Nash Ramblers who died last year, gravitate to opposite poles. "Song for Roy," a heartfelt celebration of Huskey, is followed immediately by "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," a jaunty rendition of the summertime favorite that pits Huskey's brisk playing against Bush's for the final time.
To Bush, these two cuts provide a window into Huskey's character. "'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' is just a lot of fun," he says. "And even though 'Song for Roy' is in a minor key and it's slow, we really didn't mean for it to be a mournful thing at all. The lyrics are full of things Roy used to say, like the line 'Just run the number.' When we'd be sitting around discussing a song for too long and we hadn't hit a note of music for twenty minutes, he'd say, 'Just run the number,' because he believed if you just played it and there was a problem, it would present itself--and if there wasn't, you'd realize that everything was fine."
This philosophy served Bush well while recording the vocal for "Hold On," which he completed in a single take. "I produced the album," he says. "And sometimes the producer has to win out over the artist. The artist always thinks he can do something better, but the producer's the one who has to say, 'You've done a great job. Move on to something else.' And that's what I did. I know there are imperfections on there, but if I sang it over and over, I'd probably just have imperfections in other spots. So why not stop while you're ahead?"
A native of Bowling Green, Kentucky, Bush took up mandolin and fiddle before he'd hit his teens and soon began to display virtuosic abilities. (The first time he competed in Idaho's National Old Time Fiddle Contest, he finished fifth; the next three times he competed, he won.) His first band, Poor Richard's Almanac, stayed together long enough to record a self-titled platter for the independent American Heritage label. Then, in 1970, he joined Bluegrass Alliance, a group that was renamed New Grass Revival two years later. Following the release of Arrival of the New Grass Revival, the act's debut for the Starday imprint, personnel shifts brought Cowan aboard and led to one of Bush's longest-lasting musical relationships. Cowan's background was in rock and roll, so it was only natural that the form would leave its mark on the New Grass Revival. But the bluegrass community was still shocked when the band began backing up singer-songwriter Leon Russell in 1979. The sound became even more diverse with the addition in the early Eighties of multi-instrumentalist Pat Flynn and banjoist Fleck, a hot-fingered marvel who had just turned twenty.