•The Michelob Stage
For journeyman mandolinist Sam Bush, unpredictability is a built-in trait that has steered, added to, and influenced many of his various projects. The Bowling Green, Ky. native got his start playing bluegrass mandolin at an early age virtually in the backyard of the genre’s forefather, Bill Monroe.
Bush enthusiastically soaked up the fast pickin’ style of that area as well as the slower, more distinguished stuff beaming out of Nashville. Though country music and bluegrass may have had some stylistic points in common, Bush soon realized that the two mutually exclusive tastes need not remain that way. After teaming with several like-minded pickers and adding dashes of rock and jazz to the mix, Bush eventually formed a band that continues to serve as a jumping-off point for adventurous bluegrassers in The Newgrass Revival.
“My dad played fiddle, and I was first attracted to the mandolin by listening to his old country fiddle records, but the mandolin appealed to me just as much as the fiddle did,” Bush remembers. “I eventually discovered bluegrass because, really, that’s where all the mandolin players were. So, back [when the Newgrass Revival formed] there weren’t the kind of work opportunities out there for musicians who liked to mix genres. There were very traditional festivals that didn’t want to hire us because, I think, more of our music than our looks. Then, there would be others who were promoting, like, ‘three days of peace, love, and bluegrass,’ so we played those. That was really where we wanted to be because we ended up on bills with people like The Dirt Band, John Hartford, Vassar, and The Earl Scruggs Revue. Even Earl Scruggs was taking lumps back then for not sticking to the way he and Lester Flatt used to play.”
The Newgrass Revival shaped the tones and rhythms of the modern bluegrass sound along with comrades like The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Old & In the Way. Throughout its lengthy run Bush was the group’s sole constant member, a status that gave him an early crash course as a frontman. After a collaboration and tour with Leon Russell, Bush navigated away from the Revival and signed on as a sideman in such groups as Emmylou Harris’ Nash Ramblers and Bela Fleck’s Flecktones.
With all the sidework done throughout the years, it’s surprising that Bush has also been able to maintain such a steady solo career. Bush’s latest is Laps In Seven (Sugar Hill), a fittingly eclectic, sometimes irresistibly funky record that shows the unpredictable picker and his ace road band (bassist Byron House, drummer Chris Brown, guitarist Steve Mougin, and banjo man Scott Vestal) adding some new layers atop an already sturdy bluegrass foundation.
“I think I was not only looking for something to take me out of the comfort zone, but the rest of the group as well,” says Bush. “I can be real content to just make records with the band I play with on the road. So, for a person who produces himself and then takes himself out of that comfort zone it’s kinda like Curb Your Enthusiasm on TV when Larry David’s there taking to himself in the mirror!”
From Robbie Fulks’ soaring “Where There’s A Road” to “Ballad of A Soldier,” a dark back page from the songbook of former bandmate Russell, Bush again proves himself a fine interpreter of others’ material. Laps In Seven – named for a melodic water-drinking habit of the artist’s beloved canine Ozzie – also finds Bush, once again, in very esteemed company. The Buddy and Julie Miller-penned single “The River’s Gonna Rise” reteams him with Emmylou Harris for some fine vocal harmonies. The New Orleans tribute “I Wanna Do Right” is a collaborative songwriting detour with Missouri troubadour Jeff Black. For the slippery jazz of “New Country,” the spirits of Bush and friends were bolstered by a surprise across-the-waters contribution from the song’s author, French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.
“I’d always wanted to do a duet with Emmylou,” Bush recalls. “I used to get to be her duet partner onstage sometimes but we had never recorded a song that way, necessarily. I’ve been a fan of Jean-Luc since I heard his first album, Sunday Walk, way back around 1969. It was just a joyously tearful moment from me when I heard the completed track. It’s the first time I did this, but me and the band recorded all our stuff in Nashville and then sent it to Jean-Luc in France, who promptly did his part and then e-mailed it back to us. We always used to joke about ‘someday you’ll just be able to phone your part in,’ but that’s practically what happened!” –Michael Andrews