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.
Together, Bush, Cowan, Flynn and Fleck made music that didn't seem to fit within established parameters. They earned some minor country hits, like "What You Do to Me" and their cover of Marvin Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar," but they were featured on National Public Radio's Prairie Home Companion far more often than they turned up at the Grand Ole Opry. Bush knows why. "Sometimes people would listen to us jam, and then they'd come up afterwards and say, 'Boy, that ain't bluegrass.' And all we could say is, 'You're right.'"
Some country sorts were open-minded enough not to complain; for instance, Garth Brooks turned the band's "Callin' Baton Rouge" into a smash with the help of Bush and company, who reunited for the occasion. But almost a decade after the New Grass Revival called it quits, the group continues to divide bluegrass fanciers--and so, too, does Bush's solo work. Some bluegrassers embrace him, while others prefer to keep him at an arm's distance. Bush doesn't mind either way. "Being labeled bluegrass is just fine with me, because I think it's such a noble, worthwhile, really eloquent music that's highly improvisational and damn hard to play correctly," he says. "So if anyone wants to call me a bluegrass musician, I'm not going to complain. But I wouldn't want to mislead people who haven't heard of me before and who only like old-fashioned bluegrass. Because they might be disappointed."
Why does bluegrass attract so many people with such inflexible ideas? "I wish I had a good answer for that," Bush says. "I suppose every kind of music attracts purists. You'll surely have country-music fans who'll tell you the new kids aren't playing country music like George Jones and Buck Owens did it. But you've got to remember that when George Jones and Buck Owens broke in, they were the renegades of electric country music that was a lot different from Roy Acuff and those kinds of things. And I don't personally understand feeling the need to do nothing but re-create sounds that were made in the mid-Forties."
By the same token, he claims that "no one values those old records by Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe more than me--and actually, I can do a very good job of imitating lots of Bill Monroe things. I just never thought it was my calling to imitate other people. As a matter of fact, I once saw a young mandonlinist who'd busted his ass trying to play like that do a song for Bill Monroe himself. And Bill said to him, 'That's very good. Now what can you do that's yours?' And that made so much sense to me."
Today the fans who seem most willing to let Bush go his own way are those with the fewest links to the past. "For lack of a better word, we're seeing a young, Deadhead-style audience," he says. "The audience is really, really young. We'll have people who are old enough to be parents, but there are also a lot of young folks who are looking for a different kind of music than your typical electric music. I suppose bands like Phish and [Colorado-based] Leftover Salmon have helped them discover guys like me. And when I jam with the guys in Leftover, who are friends of mine, I have a ball up there. They play so damn fast, it's a challenge just to see if I can keep up with them."
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As much as Bush enjoys the neo-hippie scene, he has no interest in joining it full-time; he's got too much other music to make. He and John Cowan have formed a blues-rock band called Duck Butter that specializes in covers like "Farther on Up the Road"; Bush likes the configuration because "it gives me a chance to play electric guitar." And on June 26 at the Denver Botanic Gardens, he is joining musicians Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall and Joshua Bell for an excursion into classical music. "Talk about stretching a hillbilly over a fence," he moans in mock anguish. "The only reason I know about classical music at all is because I took some violin lessons for a year when I was a senior in high school, so I'm certainly not very educated in that area. But Edgar's got me reading music and trying to play with him. It should be interesting to see if I can."
The Meyer show is an artistic risk, but Bush is eager to take it even if doing so brings the wrath of traditionalists down upon him. "A couple of years ago I played at a bluegrass festival in Ohio that will remain nameless," he remembers. "And the guys who were putting it on kind of freaked out about the music we were playing and prematurely took us off the stage. I guess we were receiving the bluegrass-bad-boy whipping. And at first it was upsetting, because we didn't get to play our whole set, and we think the audience wanted to hear it. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized, 'Hey, this is great. I haven't lost it yet.'"
Telluride on the Rocks, with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, David Grisman Quintet, Leftover Salmon, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tim O'Brien, the Sam Bush Band featuring John Cowan and Jerry Douglas. 5 p.m. Tuesday, June 16, Red Rocks, $30.80, 830-TIXS or 449-6007 or 1-800-624-2422.