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Mandolin master still a leader of the free world

Stewart Oksenhorn

Appearances to the contrary, Sam Bush has not done everything there is to do with a mandolin. Next month, Bush plans to start recording a CD of duets with fellow mandolin master David Grisman. It’s a project that has been on Bush’s plate for a good long time.”Grisman and I have been talking for 25 years about collaborating on a record,” said Bush. “We think we’re finally going to get it going. It’ll be pretty much a duet album. We’re going to experiment a bit. We don’t have a plan.”Not that Bush will have reached the end of any lines when the CD with Grisman is complete. But after finishing a project that he has been anticipating for 25 years, career goals become a little hard to envision.Bush long ago helped alter the course of acoustic music when, as a 19-year-old, he founded New Grass Revival. Over 18 years, with Bush at the helm, New Grass Revival continually challenged, and eventually changed, notions of traditional bluegrass by infusing rock, jazz and more into the music.More than any other figure, Bush has been responsible for making Telluride a bluegrass mecca. In the second year of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the organizers sought to liven things up by bringing in a national headliner. They settled on New Grass Revival. Bush has gone on to appear in Telluride every summer since, earning a genuine hero’s status there, and helping make Telluride one of the most popular – and musically adventurous – bluegrass festivals in the world.From 1990-1995, Bush led Emmylou Harris’ Grammy-winning Nash Ramblers Band. He has toured as a featured member of Béla Fleck & the Flecktones and Lyle Lovett’s band. Bush has played on albums by Garth Brooks and Doc Watson, Leftover Salmon and Trisha Yearwood. He produced albums for guitarist Jon Randall, mandolinist Chris Thile, and the Wild Jimbos, a Colorado trio that includes Jimmy Ibbotson.Over the last few years, Bush has released a series of acclaimed albums under his own name, and led his own band. For good measure, he joined bassist Edgar Meyer, violinist Joshua Bell and guitarist Mike Marshall in a touring quartet that mixed classical music ideas with bluegrass and folk.He has even collaborated with David Grisman, on the “Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza” double-CD set, a project which featured eight of the country’s top mandolinists.Bush says that his short-term goal, for the rest of this year at least, is to focus on his own band. The quartet – guitarist Jon Randall, drummer Larry Atamanuik, bassist Byron House, and Bush on mandolin, fiddle and vocals – performs tonight, Friday, March 30, as part of the Wheeler Opera House’s Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music. Beyond the work with his band and the album with Grisman, Bush isn’t certain what lies ahead. But he is sure that he’ll have plenty of history to draw from.”That all adds up to a lot of learning,” said Bush of his wealth of experiences. “There’s something to be learned in every circumstance. I’ve learned from Lyle and Emmylou Harris, things I can apply to my music, and my stage presentation.”While Bush would seem to have learned most from his leadership role in New Grass Revival, he says his more limited roles in Lovett’s and Harris’ bands have been invaluable to his education.”With Emmylou, I learned more about different ways of singing, different techniques,” said Bush. “Just being around her, you’d learn if you’re paying attention. And through the ’90s, I’ve just had more fun singing. Part of the joy of singing is learning your limitations, and having fun within that.”In Lovett’s band – a gig which brought Bush to a memorable Jazz Aspen Labor Day concert last summer – Bush has had to learn how to work within Lovett’s notoriously tight arrangements. Rather than a limitation, Bush found it to be another lesson in fitting his playing into someone else’s musical vision.”But that’s the role of playing in anyone’s band,” he said. “Our job is to augment his guitar approach. If I did in Lyle’s show what I do in my show, it would be out of place. And you learn to apply that to your own music: You don’t have to throw everything you know into every song you do.”F F FBush’s early years seem to have been marked by a desire to learn as much music as he could, as quickly as possible. Growing up in a Bowling Green, Ky., house where his mother played guitar, and his father played fiddle and mandolin, Bush listened to the Grand Ole Opry on radio, and watched a variety of Nashville-based music shows on television. “Like in `Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ where they sit around and listen to the radio – that was my childhood,” said Bush.Bush focused early on acoustic string music, picking up mandolin at age 11 and fiddle at 13. But it was a series of classical violin lessons during his high school years which Bush credits for one of his most valuable assets, his rare sense of rhythm. Bush ended his violin lessons with a local college professor after just one year, but the education remains.”One of the most valuable things that came out of that was her 10-page rhythm course,” said Bush. “I learned about polyrhythms, rhythm against rhythm. I didn’t last too long on violin, but learning her rhythm course helped a lot. And playing drums in a marching band, and upright bass in the school orchestra – that helped a lot. Also, playing electric guitar in a high school rock band.”Also `Rubber Soul.’ That was the first Beatles music that appealed to me. `I’ve Just Seen a Face’ – I thought, hey, maybe I could play that.”In 1971 – after having won the National Junior Fiddle Championship three years running – Bush set out to put all those influences to good use. With Courtney Johnson, Curtis Burch and Ebo Walker, his bandmates in the earlier Bluegrass Alliance, he founded New Grass Revival. From the first, the quartet was intended to do something truly different.”We were trying to do some music where we’d try to experiment and jam out,” he said. “That wasn’t new to music, but it was new to bluegrass, to acoustic music. Our main claim was to play rock ‘n’ roll on bluegrass instruments.”New Grass Revival added another dimension in 1974, when singer/bassist John Cowan replaced Walker in the group. “He was a real vocal force,” said Bush of the addition of Cowan. “We could play anywhere, with anyone, with that kind of voice.”From 1979 through 1981, New Grass worked mainly as an opening act for Leon Russell, and did some heavy touring. By 1981, Johnson and Burch had had enough of the touring life. Into the fold came banjoist Béla Fleck and guitarist Pat Flynn. With its new lineup, New Grass was set to make an unforgettable impact on acoustic music.”That was a whole different outlook,” said Bush of the new New Grass members. “It surely gave John and me a shot in the arm. We had a whole new place to get to, with their songwriting.”After nearly a decade with the revamped lineup, Bush called the band quits. “Because I did it for 18 years,” said Bush. “We had all reached a crossroads. Béla wanted to start the Flecktones. And I was in responsibility overload. I was just in business overload and needed a break.”Bush got his break from business, but not from music. Soon after disbanding New Grass Revival, he got the call from Emmylou Harris, asking if Bush wanted to lead her acoustic band.After five years with Harris, Bush started putting his own name in lights. His 1996 CD “Glamour & Grits” showed the multitude of ideas Bush had stored up for his own project. The disc features Sam as singer on material from Bob Marley’s “Is This Love” to the gospel number “The Lord Came Unto Me” to a powerful version of Jeff Black’s “Same Ol’ River,” which has become something of a signature tune for Bush. The album also shows plenty of Bush the picker, as he jammed on several instrumental tracks with the likes of Cowan, Fleck and dobroist Jerry Douglas. Bush followed in 1998 with the equally accomplished, equally diverse “Howlin’ at the Moon.” Last year came “Ice Caps: Peaks of Telluride,” containing live tracks from Bush’s last decade at Telluride.The most rigorous part of Bush’s education came when he played in the quartet led by Edgar Meyer. The group – which rehearsed for its tour in Aspen, and performed at the Aspen Music Festival’s Stepping Out series – played mostly Meyer’s compositions, which fused classical, bluegrass and folk styles.It was “one of the largest stretches I’ve ever been through,” said Bush. “I wanted to do that just for the challenge. At first, it was really terrifying and really hard, because I don’t stand onstage and read music much. But that was an incredibly gratifying experience. How Edgar draws us hillbillies into his music is just bewildering.”Return to The Aspen Times or AspenAlive.com


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