In 1991, when the group New Grass Revival ended, Sam Bush figured it was time to embark on a solo career. He had devoted 19 years to the progressive acoustic quartet, and at the time of its demise, he was the lone remaining founding member. Ever since he had started playing music, Bush had been a part of a band: While in his early teens, he formed Poor Richard’s Almanac with banjoist Alan Munde, and prior to forming New Grass Revival he was a member of the Bluegrass Alliance. It would be interesting, he reasoned, to find out what it was like to take sole responsibility as leader of his own group.
As it happened, it would take more than five years for him to find out. “It was always in my mind to make my own record and have my own band,” says Bush, who finally released his first solo album, Glamour and Grits, late last year on Sugar Hill Records. “But I kept putting it off because I kept getting all these incredible offers to do other things. Now I think I was fortunate not to have to hurry into it. I was able to take the time until I had something I wanted to say. I also learned a lot in the meantime playing with all these different people.”
Even before New Grass Revival had split up, Bush was frequently recruited by other artists to take part in recordings and live performances. Once he became free of his band’s schedule, his phone lit up: He agreed to produce an album for the Wild Jimbos, an eclectic side project of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member Jim Ibbotson. Then he joined with Emmylou Harris in an acoustic band, the Nash Ramblers; that project kept him busy for the better part of five years. “It was such a different group from the Revival,” he says. “I learned a lot about singing differently and playing differently and about leaving a little more space in the music.”
In addition, Bush could be found regularly participating in several part-time projects, including a progressive acoustic band that featured guitarist Russ Barenberg, Dobroist Jerry Douglas, and bassist Edgar Meyer. He was also part of a rhythm-and-blues band, Duck Butter, that featured keyboardist Al Kooper and former New Grass partner John Cowan.
More recently, Bush has been touring sporadically with Lyle Lovett whenever the singer opts for a stripped-down acoustic setting. He has also been appearing frequently with another former New Grass partner, Bela Fleck, and his band the Flecktones. Bush has participated in more than 80 Flecktones performances in the last two years and can be heard on the band’s new double-CD, Live Art.
“As many years as we played together,” Bush says of Fleck, “it was still a real challenge for me. What we had done wasn’t the same music that the Flecktones do. It was a stretch for me, but a good stretch. It was just what I needed to get more into improvisation.”
Bush recalls a Flecktones show at the Ryman Auditorium when Chick Corea was among the other guest players. “That was a real moment of truth for me,” he says. “There was this time onstage when Chick Corea was in the middle of this great solo, and I had this feeling they were going to look to me to solo after him. And that’s what happened. Man, talk about having to grow up and be one of the big boys! It was scary and real exciting too. Another thing that was interesting that night was watching Chick Corea and how much fun he was having. He was sitting there learning bluegrass scales during the show. He already knew the notes, of course, but he had never played them in those scales before. He was having a blast; all of us were. It was a real exciting thing to be a part of.”
Eventually, though, Bush found time to put together ideas for his own album. The collection should appeal to New Grass Revival fans: It’s a combination of musically advanced acoustic instrumentals and eclectic vocal pieces, among them the literate folk-pop of Jeff Black’s “Same Ol’ River,” the R&B glow of Tim Krekel’s “All Night Radio,” the straightforward folk balladry of Willis Alan Ramsey’s “The Ballad of Spider John,” and a progressive bluegrass take on reggae master Bob Marley’s “Is This Love.”
Turning the Marley classic into a mountain-influenced acoustic tune (with organ accents by Al Kooper) is just the kind of cross-genre exercise that New Grass would have tackled enthusiastically. And for Bush, it makes perfect sense: In the past, he has been known to put a bluegrass spin on classic soul tunes, and he once rearranged “Rocky Top” into the reggae-styled “Rasta Top.” What’s more, he sees a clear tie between the work of Marley and Bill Monroe. “When I first heard Bob Marley, what attracted me was Bob’s rhythm guitar playing, which reminded me of Bill Monroe’s rhythm chop on the mandolin,” he says. “If you listen to how he plays rhythm, it’s real similar to that firm, hard rhythm of Monroe’s mandolin. Ironically, it wasn’t until later that I really paid attention to Marley’s vocals and heard that he was this great singer.”
Even though Cowan plays bass on 10 of the 12 cuts and Fleck appears on three songs, Bush’s solo collection doesn’t sound like a New Grass projectthe emphasis here is on his mandolin playing and vocal work. The arrangements are relaxed yet focused, and Bush forgoes the breathlessly virtuosic style of his former band in favor of tempered musical settings that emphasize mood and clean, clear instrumental solos.
Although Bush has improved as a vocalist since his New Grass days, the standout tracks on Glamour and Grits are the instrumentals. The album opens with a Bush-Fleck collaboration, “Whayasay,” in which the two trade off intricate solos. “Brilliancy” is a Celtic fiddle tune played entirely by a solo mandolin, while “(One Night in Old) Galway” is a full-fledged traditional Irish romp with Bush, Fleck, and Nash Ramblers guitarist Jon Randall trading licks over the tight rhythm section of Cowan and drummer Larry Atamanuik. “Watson Allman,” named for Merle Watson and Duane Allman, is a stirring acoustic blues that features Bush playing slide mandolin with the old Nash Rambler rhythm section of Atamanuik on drums and Mark W. Winchester on acoustic bass.
Slide mandolin is a unique specialty of Bush’s. “I haven’t heard that many people do it,” he explains. “It’s something I started doing on the first New Grass album. It was a different way to play. At first I tried to use a four-string mandolin and bend the notes, but it didn’t work out. So I raised the strings and started playing slide or bottleneck guitar on it. It was after that that I first heard the Allman Brothers, and I was just blown away by Duane’s playing. It’s not that you can copy that, but he’s the one I listened to the most. Merle [Watson] listened to Duane a lot too, and he’s another player who I thought was really special. So that’s where that tune comes from.”
During the summer, Bush reacquainted himself with the circuit of bluegrass festivals that, as a member of New Grass Revival, he helped create. He performed his own material with a touring group that featured Cowan, Atamanuik, and multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott. For the first time, many fans were able to see one of America’s most revered acoustic musicians leading his own band.
“In a way, as a bandleader, I have less boundaries than ever, and I love that,” Bush says. “I sometimes feel so totally blessed to be able to play music. I can totally get lost in it. It can be a healing feeling as you’re playing it. I can’t always have fun when I play, but I sure try to. It brings me great joy, and I feel fortunate to do what I do for a living.”
Sam Bush plays Wednesday, Jan. 22, at Station Inn.
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