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King of Telluride becoming the Something of Aspen

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesSam Bush appears in the Wheeler Opera House's 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival, with a scheduled appearance on Thursday, March 31, with Keb' Mo'. The festival opens Wednesday and runs through Saturday, April 2.
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ASPEN – In Telluride, where he has played the Telluride Bluegrass Festival from the beginning and is known to sit in with everyone, Sam Bush is known as the King. In his hometown of Bowling Green, Ky., Bush is officially known as the Father of Newgrass, in recognition of the way he gave a rhythmic kick to string music back in the 1970s, as leader of New Grass Revival.Aspen might do well to come up with a nickname of its own, as Bush is well on his way to becoming the something of the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival. Last year, in the festival’s debut, Bush was part of a trio with John Oates, who co-produces 7908, and David Bromberg, and also made guest appearances with Allen Toussaint, Jimmy Wayne and Richard Butler. While this year’s 7908 Fest, which opens Wednesday at the Wheeler Opera House, has a whole new roster of talent, Bush is back, scheduled to perform on Thursday, March 31 with singer-songwriter Keb’ Mo’. And it will come as no surprise if Bush finds his way to the stage several more times over the course of the festival. “One thing we did learn [from last year] is that it’s worth it to have Sam Bush around all week as a utility player,” Gram Slaton, executive director of the Wheeler, said of Bush. “So Sam called a few weeks ago and said, ‘Can I come in even a day earlier than you had planned?’ I expect Sam will be everywhere on this.”Sure enough, Bush and his wife/business manager Lynn arrived in Aspen yesterday. Bush spent a few minutes at The Aspen Times office before hustling off to go learn some tunes.The Aspen Times: Your gifts lie more with being an instrumentalist than a songwriter. Do you ever wish it were the reverse?Sam Bush: No. I write instrumentals by myself, and have learned to enjoy the art of collaborating in songwriting. Jeff Black, I’ve written a lot with; John Pennell and I have written a lot lately. Recently, Jeff and John Oates and I wrote a song. I do pitch in words, but I’ve learned to enjoy collaborating. It can be intimidating working with great writers, and I’ve come to respect their work.AT: What is the first song you learned how to play?SB: On mandolin, it would probably have been “Dueling Banjos” – but this was way before the movie, “Deliverance.” You used to hear the song a lot on mandolin and banjo; Jim & Jesse McReynolds did it and called it “Feuding Banjos.”Or maybe it was “Bile Dem Cabbage Down” – I learned both those songs the same day, when I got my first mandolin, at age 11.AT: You are a genuine native of Kentucky – the Bluegrass State. Did that give you an advantage over other mandolinists?SB: Not just because I’m from Kentucky. But the area I grew up in, Bowling Green, is 60 miles north of Nashville. So I had the fortune to watch on TV the Grand Ole Opry, and the great bluegrass players. And it gave me the opportunity to see those great performers in person. I thought everyone got to see them. But when I started performing, at 18, I realized not everyone got to see Flatt & Scruggs, or Bill Monroe.AT: A year ago, the Kentucky legislature named Bowling Green the birthplace of newgrass, and you as the father of newgrass. Did they give you a golden pick?SB: The governor gave me and Lynn the ink pen he used to sign the proclamation. I never thought I’d get to be on the Kentucky senate floor. When you grow up on a farm in Bowling Green, it’s pretty neat to be honored by the governor.AT: You and John Oates have become good friends and collaborators. Is that because you both love to jump up onstage and jam with anyone and everyone?SB: You have to be invited first. You can’t just jump onstage. But obviously, we both love to jam. Lynn and I saw Hall & Oates back in the ’80s, and it was one of the best rock shows I ever saw. Then years later, John came to Nashville and invited me to play on his record, “1000 Miles of Life,” and then he came to Telluride to do a bluegrass/reggae version of “Maneater.” Some people you just hit it off with.AT: As songwriters go – Bill Monroe or Bob Marley?SB: Both. They both play rhythm chops. It attracted me to Bob Marley, that he played similar to the way Bill Monroe played the mandolin chops. Both great songwriters.The second annual 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival continues through Saturday, April 2, at the Wheeler Opera House. Highlights include Keb’ Mo’ with Sam Bush on Thursday, March 31; Ruthie Foster and John Hammond on Friday, April 1; and Donavon Frankenreiter, with Matt Nathanson, on Saturday, April 2. For a full schedule, go to wheeleroperahouse.com.stewart@aspentimes.com


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