By Quentin Young
Sam Bush is one of those rare artists who isn’t just great at his chosen medium but has changed the nature of the medium itself.
He often is called the “father of newgrass” in reference to his role as a member of New Grass Revival, a 1970s bluegrass band that, adding rock and jazz influences, helped revolutionize the genre such that it spawned a sub-genre named after the band.
Bush, who lives in Nashville, is a familiar face in Colorado, where he frequently shows up on festival lineups. Another of his appellations is “king of Telluride” — New Grass Revival played the second Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and Bush hasn’t missed the festival since. He’s on the 2016 lineups for Telluride and the Lyons-based RockyGrass bluegrass festival.
And March 12, Bush is playing in Longmont for the first time in his career. He’s the headliner of the fourth annual Hops + Handrails, an event sponsored by the Left Hand Brewing Co. that pairs craft beers with snowboarding. The Jeff Austin Band and Rapidgrass also will perform.
The picker is about to release a yet-to-be-named album. And a documentary film about him, “Revival: The Sam Bush Story,” recently has screened at selected film festivals.
Bush talked with us about the origins of newgrass, the importance of John Coltrane to his music and how he recently tried his hand at being a singer-songwriter:
Q: To us out here in Colorado, it sometimes seems like the state is a second home to you.
A: It feels like a second home. We started coming to Colorado in December 1972, we being Newgrass Revival … Of course, there’s our association with the Telluride Bluegrass Festival — mine will be 42 years consecutive this year — so a lot of people think that I live in Colorado.
Q: How do you think that evolved? Is it just the nature of the state? Your fondness for the state? Is it the musical tastes that are out here?
A: Well, in my case, it’s the fortunate nature of the musical tastes of the music fans of Colorado … You know, I’ve wondered if the wide-open spaces helps perhaps a wide-open attitude for open ideas and being open to new music and different music that you might not have heard before. I’ve always found that to be the case. When you think back to the great ’70s scene of Boulder and the studios and the music scene and all the bands that were coming out of Boulder, it’s kind of wide-open thinking. I’ve wondered about that, and I believe it might true.
Q: You personally might be responsible for half the music being made out here to this day, with bands like The String Cheese Incident, and Yonder Mountain String Band coming directly out of the newgrass tradition. Are you willing to take that responsibility?
A: I’m not sure I’m that responsible, especially when you think about the fact that right in the Boulder-Longmont area specifically you had Hot Rize, and (Hot Rize member) Peter Wernick is a banjo teacher and the whole thing. I think for younger groups, that aren’t as young anymore, but younger groups at the time, like Yonder Mountain, like Leftover Salmon, that New Grass Revival and Hot Rize would have been influential when they first saw us guys. But it’s not lost on me that Hot Rize is incredibly important in the world of acoustic music and bluegrass for Colorado.
Q: Do you have any kind of relationship with say, Pete Wernick or (Hot Rize member) Tim O’Brien?
A: Oh, yeah. Well, Tim is great about throwing jam sessions … I was just over at Tim’s (in Nashville) right after Christmas, and Tim throws picking parties. Tim and I are mandolin pals. We are mandolin and fiddle pals, and it’s funny, because Tim and I play the same instruments, we haven’t often gotten to play in the same ensembles, but we’re good fiddle pals.
Q: Somebody else mentioned Tim’s jam sessions at his house. It might have been (Punch Brothers member) Chris Thile.
A: The last jam session, I remember (guitarist) David Grier, Steve Conn on accordion, Kenny Malone on percussion, Tim, me, (banjo player) Bela Fleck, Abigail (Washburn), Matt Combs on fiddle. You never know. Richard Bailey on banjo. You know, you never know who’s going to be there. It’s a really joyful thing, and all kinds of music’s played. It’s not just like a bluegrass thing, it’s all kinds of songs.
Q: Does anybody ever record it?
A: No. It’s just a good, fun thing.
Q: What’s your take on where bluegrass has gone and where it’s yet to go? What are you seeing out there?”
A: Well, I think it’s in incredibly great hands right now. My brain tends to go toward the great young mandolin players, so when you think what an incredible group the Punch Brothers are and my young friend Chris Thile … Sierra Hull, a great young friend, has just released a new album, produced by Bela, and she’s becoming a force in music. So it’s great. As far as a newgrass kind of scene, you got bands like the (Infamous) Stringdusters, and on the East Coast you got Larry Keel, and I think it’s in really great hands, because people that are coming up know and respect the traditions of bluegrass but now they’re truly making their own music.
Q: Your last solo album was “Circles Around Me” in 2009.
A: Yes. I’ve got one in the can with hopes of getting it out by the time for Telluride this year. Basically me and the band with a couple of guests, but this time I will have co-written all the songs, at least. So it’ll be sort of a singer-songwriter kind of record.
Q: What did you find about yourself as a songwriter?
A: That when I get together with people like Guy Clark and Jeff Black, my songwriting improves all of a sudden.
Q: What place has Telluride played in your development as a musician?
A: Somehow at the Telluride festival we all tend to want to do something special for that, so I think it kind of pushes us to try different things there, which pushes you as a musician … I was just talking the other day about a set I got to play (in 1979) with Doc Watson and Dan Crary and Norman Blake, and all these young guitar players have been coming to me in these last years going, “We’ve been watching this old performance of you guys, good God! Doc Watson and Norman and Dan.” So there have been these great musical experiences that, just by sitting in there, if you’ve paid attention it’s been educational for sure.
Q: With the documentary “Revival: The Sam Bush Story,” I just wondered what it’s like for you to have something like that made about you?
A: Well, it’s pretty humbling for starters, and, you know, odd to see yourself talking on a screen. That’s a little odd. But I guess it’s kind of amazing as an overview to look back and go, “OK, you really have, you know, come a long way since you got out of high school” … It’s pretty overwhelming that people would take time to talk on camera about you and not spill all the dirt, I guess.
Q: What did you learn about Sam Bush when you watched it?
A: “Oh gosh, that he moves too much when he talks. That he should learn to sit still.”
Q: Did you have a sense back in the ’70s and ’80s of what you might be achieving?
A: When we started New Grass Revival we just started playing a riff one day, and first thing you know, we were playing a tune for 15 minutes and, you know, we kind of kept doing it. So we weren’t trying to change anything, we were just taking the influences that we had, being traditional bluegrass or the progressive bluegrassers at the time — or the same way that I was in high school listening to The Beatles and the Cream and the Jefferson Airplane, and then a buddy played me a John Coltrane record — so you take all those kinds of influences and it just kind of filters through somewhat.
Q: That’s interesting you mention Coltrane, because there’s a lot made of how newgrass owes a bunch to rock influences, but obviously there’s a jazz component there, too.
A: Sure, sure. Well the first thing I ever heard by John Coltrane — my friend played it for me, the record was called Best of Atlantic Jazz, and there was one cut of John Coltrane doing “My Favorite Things,” which is surely one of the simplest things he ever recorded. But for a kid just starting to listen, it was a perfect introduction because I could relate to that melody, and then the way he improvised in that solo, I probably still play some of those phrases that I learned.
Q: Is it true that Bill Monroe, after hearing you play mandolin, told you to stick to the fiddle?
A: Yes. Well, he knew me as a kid fiddler a little bit, and there was a jam session at the Bean Blossom (bluegrass festival in Morgantown, Ind.) … Bill looked at me and goes, “I want you to stay with that fiddle now, we ain’t got enough good young fiddlers coming up.” (Bush said to himself) “I’m a mandolin-playing son of a gun, Bill.” So, anyway, I was hoping that he maybe wanted me to be his fiddler someday and maybe that’s why he said that. It actually gave me great encouragement on both instruments.
Q: Did you ever run across him later in your career and get any updated assessments on your mandolin playing?
A: No. Well we were around each other off and on for years after that, obviously. I think he really did want me to be a good kid fiddler. But he knew I was just a kid, and whatever instrument I chose I needed to dedicate myself to it and stick with it.