Good Lord willin’
Legendary mandolinist Sam Bush brings his ‘joyful noise’ to Laxson
A true legend in some musical circles and unknown in others, Sam Bush is a music business enigma.
He’s pushed American bluegrass to new limits since his days as front man of the renowned New Grass Revival, and he has played with countless big names on stage and on record, but there’s still a good chance you’ve never heard of Sam Bush.
Nevertheless, he’ll be at Laxson Auditorium Saturday night, picking and jamming with his band of four in a cross-pollination of bluegrass, rock, country, folk and, well, almost anything will be fair game. This ain’t your father’s bluegrass. These aren’t porch songs composed for rocking chair and old hound dog. Bush delivers a progressive bluegrass presentation. He’s taken traditional American bluegrass and fused it with other genres, resulting in a fresh and novel dance-inspiring product. A student of all sorts of acoustic music, Bush almost single-handedly forged his own style: “newgrass.”
A few days before heading out on his current tour of the Northwest, the in-demand sideman had just completed a day’s work at Nashville’s Sound Wave Studio. He was overdubbing tracks for a Liz Meyer album (which will also feature Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas) when the News & Review caught up with him by phone. His goals for the impending Chico performance are simple.
“Positive energy, a positive experience, joyful noise,” Bush promises from his Nashville home. “We have no dance routine or light show. We entertain through our playing. It’s like if you go to see a movie or a ball game; if you are thinking about anything else [at the show], we’re not doing our job.”
Byron House will accompany Bush on bass at the Laxson show, along with longtime colleague Jon Randall on guitar and a new drummer, Chris Brown.
Bush’s musical roots run deep. After having a few National Junior Fiddle Championships under his belt, Bush formed New Grass Revival, which challenged the bluegrass establishment for 18 years. Since New Grass Revival disbanded in 1989, Bush has steadily kept his plate full. He’s recorded on albums by a diverse group of stars, including Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and Leon Russell. And he hopes to complete two more albums, one with David Grisman and one with Jorma Kaukonen, in 2002.
Over the years, he’s picked up two Grammy awards. The first came in 1992 from a live album from his five-year tour of duty with Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers. The second, an instrumental version of “Sinister Minister,” came from a live album he recorded in 1995 with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.
More recently, he collaborated with David Grisman, Ricky Skaggs and others on the Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza and lent a hand on A Short Trip Home, a project that brought a Grammy nomination for Best Country Instrumental.
Bush’s most recent album, Ice Caps: Peaks of Telluride, was released in 2000. The live compilation features select performances recorded through the ‘90s at the Telluride (Colo.) Bluegrass Festival. The album illustrates Bush’s diversity as well as virtuosity. On it, he gives excellent performances in traditional bluegrass (Bill Monroe’s “Big Mon"), folk (Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North County") and country-rock (John Hiatt’s “Memphis in the Meantime"). Bush played the first Telluride fest in the mid-'70s and has returned each year. In July, he plans to perform at the festival for the 28th time. Closer to Chico, Bush has headlined the California World Music Festival, in Grass Valley, and the Strawberry Festival at Camp Mather near Yosemite.
“In the words of Hank Williams, if the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise,” he and his band will be making joyous music in Chico. Bush, who turns 50 in April, says with a chuckle, “I don’t know where it’s gone; the years flew by. I’ve been performing since I was 18, but 50 seems young now.”
The Chico audience can expect him to play about 75 percent mandolin and 25 percent fiddle. His 1956 electric mandolin promises to get a workout, and Bush said that he’ll put two others through their paces.
“Within the mandolin family, I do different things,” Bush explained. “I have a Fender mandolin and a little four-string solid body that you play like an electric guitar. And I have another four-string—I raised the action on it and I play it real high, with a slide.”
Bush is well aware that Top 40 radio continues largely to shun acoustic music, and that U2 and Britney Spears will continue to outsell him, but he’s happy just the way things are.
“Oh, I’m as famous as I want to be," he says. "I mean, Timothy McVeigh’s famous. Being able to play in nice venues and perform nice shows appeals to me, and that takes name recognition. It’s nice to have a balance of having your privacy and also having enough people know who you are to come out and see you."