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January 7, 2009
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Newgrass king: Sam Bush in Aspen

ASPEN Its a shame that Sam Bushs stay in Aspen is limited to one day, Wednesday, Jan. 14, when he will be leading his five-piece band in a show at Belly Up. Were he to extend his stay slightly, Bush could have himself an expansive musical workout.The two nights before the Sam Bush Band appearance, the Wailers the remnants of Bob Marleys band play at Belly Up, performing the entirety of Marleys 1977 classic Exodus. Three nights after Bushs gig, Texas singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett rolls into town to play the Wheeler Opera House. And though Bush is known best as a founder of the progressive wing of string music dubbed newgrass, his interests are broad enough to include reggae and country.In fact, Bushs recent gigs have specifically included the music of Bob Marley, and working as a sideman to Lovett. In the fall, Bushs band toured with an outfit called the Original Wailers a distinct entity from the Wailers that will show up in Aspen this week led by guitarist Al Anderson and singer Junior Marvin, both former members of Marleys band. Each night of the tour ended with the two bands joining forces for a massive tribute two drum sets, two bassists, banjo, mandolin and more to Marley. And Bush did a short run last summer as a member of Lovetts band; Bush jokes that his summer vacation consisted of that seven-date tour through Texas.Neither of these ventures could be called dabbling. Bush has frequently toured with Lovett, taking a featured role in the band, and he has recorded on several of Lovetts albums, including 2007s Its Not Big Its Large. And reggae is a significant part of Bushs musical make-up not only do Bob Marleys songs invariably find their way into his concerts, but Bushs mandolin technique, heavy on the rhythmic element, has been influenced by the rhythm-guitar style that is near the core of reggae music.When I first bought [Marleys] Natty Dread in 1975, the first thing that attracted me was the rhythm guitar. The way you chop the guitar in reggae reminded me of Bill Monroes mandolin playing, said the 56-year-old Bush, from his home in Nashville. But the technical familiarity was hardly the only thing that attracted Bush. The way the bass and drums played different than in any other form of popular music hitting the bass drum on the two-beat, instead of the one. Then the great songwriting, and Bobs great singing.The only genuine reggae numbers that have made it into Bushs repertoire have been Bob Marleys songs. But that investigation has been extensive, as Bush has covered Lively Up Yourself, One Love and Comin in From the Cold, and recorded a version of Is This Love on his 1996 album, Glamour and Grits. I try to learn one Bob Marley song and one Bob Dylan song a year, said Bush. And the reggae influence doesnt end with cover songs. Bush originals like Spooky Lane have a heavy Jamaican feel, and Bush has reggaefied his versions of Steve Winwoods Hold On and Cat Stevens Longer Boats.

Bush was thinking about different ways to play his mandolin before the arrival of Natty Dread, and even before he got his first whiff of the reggae sound via Eric Claptons cover of Marleys I Shot the Sheriff. Around the same time he got his first mandolin, at the age of 11, he also saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, heard the Rolling Stones and, a bit later, got turned on to Cream and Jimi Hendrix.And even when he was listening to bluegrass, it wasnt the pure form of the music that had been invented by Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs a couple of decades earlier. Bush is often credited with inventing newgrass, but the string music he grew up on was adventurous and open-minded.When I was young, there were already people like the Osborne Brothers, and Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys, who did Berry Pickin in the Country, an album of Chuck Berry songs, and the Dillards and the Country Gentlemen. Even Flatt & Scruggs at that point werent playing the kind of music they had played earlier, said Bush. So I came along at a time when people were doing progressive things with the music.Bush, a native of Bowling Green, Ky., first came to musical prominence in 1971, when he co-founded the New Grass Revival. The band name was meant to convey the idea that the quartet which, in its most popular lineup, included banjoist Bla Fleck, guitarist Pat Flynn and singer-bassist John Cowan was not all that groundbreaking.We were reviving that new style of bluegrass, said Bush.The idea that New Grass Revival was merely a continuation of the opening up of traditional string music and not a quantum leap forward leads to arguments. With Cowan contributing vocal acrobatics picked up from the soul-music realm, Fleck moving further into a jazz-fusion direction, and Bush adding touches of rock and reggae, the group represented the new more than any kind of revival.Bush concedes that New Grass Revival was probably more open-eared than anything that had come before. I was fortunate to meet up with other people that were open to anything, said Bush, who, in his high school years, had played electric guitar in a rock band and drums in the marching band. We never tried to do something different with the music; it was natural. We just played it like we felt it. But it led to a new sort of bluegrass. The only restrictions were in your brain.With the members eager to follow their own paths, New Grass Revival broke up in 1989. The super-group Strength in Numbers, featuring Bush and Fleck as well as fiddler Mark OConnor, bassist Edgar Meyer and dobroist Jerry Douglas, followed. But it was inevitably a short-lived (though well-remembered) project, and the quintet recorded just one album, 1989s The Telluride Sessions.Bush then spent five years in Emmylou Harris Nash Ramblers band, before setting out under his own name. As a solo artist since the mid-90s, he has released five albums. (There have also been wide-ranging one-off projects: Hold On, Were Strumming, an album of instrumental duets with fellow mandolinist David Grisman; Short Trip Home, a classical/folk hybrid with Edgar Meyer, violinist Joshua Bell and mandolinist Mike Marshall; and Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza, which included nearly every mandolin great.) Bushs solo CDs tend to highlight his musical range, stretching from bluegrass-y romps to takes on classic rock (Its a Beautiful Days White Bird on 2006s Laps in Seven) to genre-hopping epics like the Laps in Seven title track.But probably no album captures Bush in full like 2000s wonderful Ice Caps. The album collects performances, spanning from 1992-99, from the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Bush is the undisputed king of the festival, having appeared at 34 of the 35 annual gatherings. Oddly, there are no Bob Marley songs but there is everything else, from an acoustic duet with Jerry Douglas on Bob Dylans Girl of the North Country to the Bill Monroe fiddle tune Big Mon (featuring Bush on fiddle), and I Put a Spell on You (with Bush on electric guitar) to a revved-up version of the soul-pop hit, Celebrate.For the last decade or so, Bushs main focus has been his own band. The boundaries havent expanded enormously; Bush says his music has sort of become more developed in what it is. Much of that process has involved letting his band mates develop their style, and the band along with it. The current lineup includes his long-standing bassist, Byron House; drummer Chris Brown; guitarist Stephen Mougin; and banjoist Scott Vestal. A big part of the bands personality comes out of Vestal, who doubles on the banjo synthesizer, which mimics the sound of the Hammond B3 organ, electric guitar and other instruments.For when you dont want a banjo sound, said Bush, of Vestals synth. The Original Wailers, he added, had never heard anyone play the banjo the way Scott did. They didnt know you could improvise on it like that.Bush still stretches musically, particularly in a trio very sparse and acoustic and loads of fun of Meyer, Douglas and himself, which performed in November at Carnegie Hall and is scheduled to tour next year. To stay rooted in traditional bluegrass, he plays each summer at the Rockygrass Festival, in Lyons, as the Sam Bush Bluegrass Band whose membership is exactly the same as his regular group. To keep the set as close to bluegrass as possible, Bush says they take away [Browns] drum set and give him one snare drum and make him wear a cowboy hat.With his basic template set, Bush now refines his sound through his songwriting. He is currently in the early stages of making his next record, and has been collaborating with other writers: Texas icon Guy Clark, Meyer and Douglas, and Jeff Black, who wrote Same Old River, a staple of Bushs repertoire.The writing process will determine what happens, said Bush of his next album. It could go a little more rock n roll, or a little more bluegrass. Im comfortable with calling it newgrass. That fits what we do.stewart@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Jan 10, 2009 10:58AM Published Jan 7, 2009 03:56PM Copyright 2009 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.