Sam Bush still breaking new ground in bluegrass
Sam Bush has covered about all the acoustic music ground one could imagine.He has collaborated with virtually every prominent bluegrass picker there is, played and recorded with country superstars, served as mentor to the next generation of acoustic pioneers, and almost single-handedly established the Telluride Bluegrass Festival as the premier bluegrass gathering west of the Mississippi.And, oh yes, Bush has been a leading figure in transforming bluegrass from a molding relic to an adventurous, vital form of music.So Bush has to reach far afield to come up with a list of things he has not done.”I never played with Jean-Luc Ponty or Eric Clapton,” said the 51-year-old Bush. “And when I was young, I wanted to be a fiddle player in Bill Monroe’s band. We all dream of things – I never played with Bob Dylan. Everybody would want to play `Whipping Post’ on stage with the Allman Brothers.”One other thing Bush considers he has not yet done is to release a mandolin record. Bush has, of course, recorded extensively with his main instrument.He also sings and plays fiddle, banjo and guitar, and has added mandolin to albums by Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Garth Brooks, Bla Fleck & the Flecktones, Jorma Kaukonen, Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, Edgar Meyer and so on to ridiculous lengths. His rhythmic mandolin playing in New Grass Revival, the band he founded in 1971 at the age of 19, revolutionized acoustic string music. In the last few years, Bush has released a series of CDs under his own name.But none of those are what Bush considers his own mandolin record. (Bush was part of what might be the ultimate mandolin record, 1999’s “Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza,” but he was just one of eight premier mandolinists on that two-CD set.) That improbable failure ends later this month. “Hold On, I’m Strumming,” a duet CD with fellow mandolinist David Grisman, is due for release Sept. 23 on Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label. Though there are several side players – including Grisman’s 13-year-old son, Sam, on bass – and Bush and Grisman dabble with other instruments, the emphasis is very much on the acoustic mandolins (and mandolin offshoots the mandola and mandocello). Most of the 16 tracks are new originals jointly composed by Bush and Grisman.”David always makes mandolin records,” said Bush. “But for me, I’m always singing, or putting electric guitar on there. So this is really the first mandolin record for me. That’s new.”The collaboration with Grisman has been a long time coming. The two mandolinists first met at the 1965 Roanoke Bluegrass Festival in Virginia, what Bush calls possibly the first bluegrass festival. It would be a profound experience for Bush, who had already caught the bluegrass bug and studied mandolin for several years. “I got to see things – the Osborne Brothers, Bill Monroe, Jim & Jesse [McReynolds] at the peak forms of their bands – that would turn me on to bluegrass for the rest of my life,” said Bush, a Kentucky native who lives in the Nashville area.Bush also made his first acquaintance with Grisman, at the time a New Jersey-based picker playing in the Greenwich Village folk and bluegrass scene.The two would go on to be friends, occasional collaborators, and have parallel, pioneering careers that would change the course of bluegrass. In Grisman’s David Grisman Quintet, bluegrass was mixed with jazz and South American styles, for a unique sound dubbed “Dawg” music (after the nickname given Grisman by Jerry Garcia).In New Grass Revival, which included Bla Fleck, John Cowan and Pat Flynn, Bush added powerful rhythms, and rock energy, to bluegrass. Though they came at bluegrass from different directions, Bush said Grisman has long been an inspiration.”Not so much that I’ve copied his playing,” said Bush. “But when I first heard him, I said, yeah, there’s one of the best bluegrass players there is. And that first Grisman Quintet record – that was huge for me. I think I bought 10 copies of it to give away to people.”Grisman is still having an impact on Bush, and vice versa. “Hold On, I’m Strumming,” which has been talked about for two decades and was finally started with sessions in the spring of 2001, finds Bush and Grisman finding a middle ground between their ideas.”Both of us were trying different styles as we went,” said Bush. “There were tunes where David would come around to my bluesy style of playing; there were times when I’d come around to his more jazzy kind of playing. We had to make compromises. There are always compromises in this kind of project.”To Bush, maybe the best part of “Hold On, I’m Strumming” is the effect the two mandolinists had on each other. “There are tracks where our friends who we played it for couldn’t tell who was playing which part. And that was the idea.”Bush has already begun recording tracks for his next project, with his band. Some of the record will feature his current band, a quartet with bassist Byron House, drummer Chris Brown and guitarist Brad Davis, who joined the group in January. Several tunes were recorded with Bush’s former sideman, guitarist Jon Randall.Bush will also be heard in the months ahead on the new Keb’ Mo’ CD, which features Mo’ and a host of guests playing blues songs on bluegrass instruments, and playing a swing version of “Let It Snow” for a Christmas compilation CD.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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