The best way to honor Bill Monroe as the 100th anniversary of his birth approaches is to take time to mentor younger players and to take the music he is credited with creating in new directions. “It’s time to see what we can all do on our own,” Sam Bush said in the keynote address kicking off the 25th World of Bluegrass Conference Monday night in Nashville.
In effect, Bush’s anecdote-studded talk put into words what he has already put into action. As a young teen, Bush idolized the man known as the Father of Bluegrass, but tested musical boundaries to become the so-called Father of Newgrass, even as Monroe professed to hate Bush’s style of music.
Bush, up for five International Bluegrass Association Awards at this week’s conference, started his tribute to Monroe by announcing the titles of his most-enduring songs and calling them “a definitive portrait of Mr. Bill Monroe.” He then fleshed out the portrait by naming some of the many musicians who were members of the Bluegrass Boys over the years.
While Monroe told Bush and others of his “hate” for newgrass, Bush said Monroe frequently pushed musicians to do their own thing. “He was looking for things (to be) different,” Bush said. “He didn’t want everybody playing the same way.”
Like any member of a new generation, not all of Bush’s memories of his bluegrass father are good ones. There was a period, starting in 1971, when Monroe bought into drug rumors about Bush and the Newgrass Revival Band and stopped inviting them to perform at Bean Blossom and other shows on Monroe’s regular circuit. Although the rumors were dispelled, it took nearly a decade for the two mandolin players to rebuild their relationship. By 1982, the friendship was fully restored and Monroe called after Bush underwent serious cancer surgery and volunteered to play a benefit for him. True to his word, Bush recalled, Monroe, after a day of festival playing and two sets at the Grand Ole Opry, arrived with the Bluegrass Boys in time to close a Nashville benefit for Bush.
Even though he resisted calling himself a bluegrass player for a number of years, Bush said his early brushes with Monroe made him a better player. “I knew I wanted to and needed to attend the school of Bill,” Bush recounted. “I was totally hooked. Seeing the master, I realized how much I didn’t know and how much I really wanted to learn.”
Tonight, as he recounted the lessons he said he learned at “the school of Bill,” Bush repaid the favor, demonstrating it’s possible to honor your father, even if you choose not to precisely follow his footsteps.