Sam Bush is a Grammy Award-winning multi-instrumentalist best known for his mastery of the mandolin. Over the course of a lengthy career, Bush has developed a distinctive style of picking and singing that is evocative of many disparate musical forces, including Bill Monroe, Bob Marley and the Allman Brothers Band. Even after 50 years, Bush continues to expand the boundaries of acoustic music and remains a perennial favorite among peers, critics and fans alike.
Bush put himself on this path at quite a young age, and he told the City Paper that by the time he was a teenager in Bowling Green, Kentucky, he was performing in his school’s marching band as well as in a local rock ‘n’ roll ensemble. During this formative period, Bush was also winning fiddling championships and making regular road trips to apprentice at club shows under the legendary bluegrass bandleader J.D. Crowe. Obviously underage then, Bush would often have to hide in the kitchen, he said, until it was time to sit in with Crowe.
After completing high school, Bush found his way into his first significant band, Bluegrass Alliance, a project that eventually also included one of the greatest guitar players of all time. As Bush explains, “I was functioning as their guitarist, having taken over for Dan Crary. Then one day, I encountered what appeared to be the skinniest man on earth playing Clarence White-type phrases in the middle of this big field outside the Camp Springs Bluegrass Festival in North Carolina. It turned out to be Tony Rice, and after we got to talking, I proposed that he join our group so that I could switch my focus back to mandolin. I probably should have asked the other guys first, but they warmed up to the idea pretty quickly once they heard Tony play.”
Bush said that on account of its penchant for improvised interludes, the Bluegrass Alliance was repeatedly billed by certain folks as the Grateful Dead of bluegrass. “We had to ask them not to do that anymore. It wasn’t because we didn’t love the Dead, but because people started showing up expecting us to actually deliver a set of their songs.”
Next came what is perhaps Bush’s most lauded work during a long-running stint in the enormously influential New Grass Revival (NGR), alongside Béla Fleck. The commercially successful, genre-bending experiment cemented Bush’s reputation as an innovative virtuoso. Interestingly, at times, NGR served as a backing band for Leon Russell and, later, Garth Brooks.
As that exciting era came to an end, Bush ended up in Nashville, where he has become something of a high-demand free agent. Onstage and in the studio, Bush has collaborated with everyone from Doc Watson to Taylor Swift, and he has been a righteous role model for many of the shape-shifting acts now at the forefront of the acoustic music scene: Molly Tuttle, Greensky Bluegrass, Trampled by Turtles, Billy Strings and others.
Still, Bush remains modest about his place in the new world order. “I’m just appreciative of the fact that I even get invited to the party with all these younger musicians who are now my friends,” he said. “I didn’t have a bigger hero on the mandolin than Jethro Burns when I was starting out. And one time when he was opening up for New Grass Revival, which totally should have been the other way around, he told me that if I lived long enough, I’d also see the day when I was the support act for the people I had influenced. He didn’t really phrase it so nicely or with words that were suitable for print, but it was a point well-taken.”
These days, you will mostly find Bush working on behalf of his own brand, the jam-friendly Sam Bush Band, which lands Bush back in the Lowcountry this week for a special performance at Firefly Distillery as part of the Safe Sounds series. Bush said this will be his first big show since being sidelined by the pandemic last year and that it is bound to be a “crowd-pleaser.”
The Sam Bush Band will perform April 29 at Firefly Distillery as part of the Safe Sounds Series. Tickets are $160 for 10-by-10 square for four, $40 general admission. For more info, visit fireflydistillery.com.