Sam Bush – a musician in motion

Sam Bush could be considered the perennial troubadour. He’s not only a regular presence at every bluegrass gathering of any significance, he’s also a steadfast session player whose contributions on mandolin and fiddle are found on any number of albums by leading lights in today’s Americana realms. As spring turns to summer, he’s preparing to tour once again with his band in tow, while also celebrating his latest release, Radio John, a tribute to his friend and mentor John Hartford.

Of course Bush’s credentials are well known. Kentucky born and bred, he pursued his passion for the work of Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, and went on to win multiple awards before cofounding the progressive bluegrass band, New Grass Revival. With his participation, the group helped spread the parameters of bluegrass well beyond its traditional template, and into the populist realms of a new younger audience. After they disbanded, he spent five years with Emmylou Harris’ Nash Ramblers, before eventually going solo. He took home three-straight IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year awards, 1990-92, and a fourth in 2007. So too, over the span of his ultra-successful solo career, he’s released seven albums and a live DVD. Not surprisingly then, in 2009, the Americana Music Association awarded Bush the Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist.

Bluegrass Today recently had the opportunity to speak with the always-affable Mr. Bush to quickly catch up and talk about his upcoming activities. 

So, Sam, it’s about to get to that busy season for you. How are you doing sir?

Hey, Lee doing all right.

You are, of course, a constant and consistent road warrior. It’s hard to keep up with you. So the first question. one has to ask is how do you do it?

Well, what we do is we travel for a living, but we also get to get out and play music a couple of hours. It’s hard to believe how long I’ve been doing this, but the music is still the rewarding part. I think we all kind of feel a new sense of renewal over the last couple of years of being able to get out and congregate again. Before, we took that for granted, how freely we get to travel about as Americans. And so at any rate, I think that I’m maybe, I’m a little bit renewed with enthusiasm for playing music and just getting out and getting to play with the band again.

It’s always so great to see you play because you always have that smile on your face. You are obviously so enthused, and it’s so evident all the time. That joy and enthusiasm never seems to leave you. You always seem so happy doing what you do.

That is my resting face. I’ve had a few health slips over the years, just enough to drive home the fact that I am fortunate to get to play music. So as long as the hands and the voice work well, I want to keep doing it. That’s a joyful thing. I’ve always been fortunate when it’s time to play, because I’m able to channel the energy of the group. So when we start the show, within a few minutes, we’ve connected as a band and that translates to the audience. People just enjoy the music. Obviously, if we’re enjoying it, then it opens the door for the audience that want to want to participate. If we look like something’s wrong, some probably is. But it’s our job to just entertain people and take you away from your other thoughts for an hour and a half or two hours.

So who’s in the band currently?

We had a new banjo player, Wes Corbett, join a couple of years ago, but other than that, it’s still Steve Mougin on guitar, Todd Parks on bass, and good old Chris Brown and his drums of renown.

This band has been together for a while now, has it not?

It’s hard for me to remember how long all the different people have been in but I think this was Chris Brown’s first job in 2001. So Chris, and I’ve been playing together, arguably, for 22 years. And he has certainly freed us up over the years to try different kinds of music. I’m thinking Steve joined around 14 years ago, and Todd maybe around around 12 years ago. So it’s obviously, a very comfortable feeling, and a warm camaraderie that we’ve got going on here. Wes is now the youngster of the group and has brought us in some new energy. When he first joined, we played about 14 shows and then had to shut down for a year due to the pandemic. So did everybody else. These these guys are highly inventive, and I always want to play with the best people.

Still, it’s no small accomplishment to have a band that’s held together for such a long time. It’s not only the musical chemistry but the personalities as well. The fact that you’ve managed to maintain that bond is no small accomplishment.

Well, yeah. And the crew is the same way. But that’s part of the job of being a traveling musician. A large part of your job is getting along with others. You must. You learn that in kindergarten, to play well with others. And boy, the music business really applies to playing well with others. You can’t always agree on everything, and we don’t, but we agree musically. So that’s most important. I’m very fortunate that when we wake up in the morning, everybody pretty much wakes up with a smile on their face. That’s a fortunate situation.

Tell us about your new CD, Radio John. It was mostly a solo affair, was it not? How did that come about?

I didn’t set out to make a tribute to John Hartford. It just organically happened. My wife Lynn and I go to Florida, and when we can, we try to go down to the Gulf Coast of Florida. And I always take little recording machines with me. What I would do sometimes if maybe I’d get stuck as I trying to write some new tunes is to play a John Hartford song, or some of my favorite Hartford tunes. Then I just started kind of laying them down on tape, but I wasn’t having success with my recording engineering capabilities. And so my friend Donnie Sundial, who I sometimes jam with when I’m down there, stopped by and he brought an entire digital ProTools recording rig. He brought me an extra bass. So I started recording these songs with Donnie down in Florida. And then, in 2020, Rick Wheeler, who was working with us as an engineer and tour manager, got involved. So Rick and I would get together, the two of us, and I would just overdub on the songs for hours and just work on these tunes while singing them. And it was also me making my way on banjo, which I hadn’t played in years. But certain certain things that John did I knew how to do, and I didn’t want to call one of my brilliant banjo friends and asked them to tag along, so to speak.

So is that how it evolved with you playing all the instruments?

Originally, I was just going to make some demos so the band could learn some of these Hartford songs. But then I began to realize that maybe these tunes mean much more to me than they would anyone else. I love the songs and I love John and his music. So, fortunately, Smithsonian Folkways wanted to put it out. So that’s what I mean when I say it just kind of organically happened. All of a sudden, I had nine tunes recorded that John Hartford wrote. And then I had this idea for a song called Radio John, which was his nickname as a deejay when he was a young man. At one point, we had like 20-something verses to it. So we put our song Radio John together as as a tribute to Hartford. On the first New Grass Revival album there’s a poem on the back written by a guy named Radio John, and that was Hartford. 

For folks that are familiar with Hartford, it brings it all back around  And for those that aren’t familiar with him, it illuminates that legacy. It’s a wonderful thing that you were able to bring his work front and center.

It may be the only John Hartford tribute that doesn’t include Gentle On My Mind, but it’s just that song had been done a lot. I actually got to record it with John, but my favorite version of it is Tim O’Brien’s. I was fortunate to get in on Hartford’s music early in my life, growing up around with the close, close proximity to Nashville, Tennessee television stations. I saw him on on the Wilburn Brothers show on Saturday afternoons, but I didn’t catch his name. I didn’t know who this handsome banjo picker was. But I noticed he could sing while he was doing an Earl Scruggs roll on the banjo and I had never seen anybody do that. So it wasn’t long before my dad and I went to Nashville, and we went into the Ernest Tubb record shop and I found a record. There’s that guy and his name’s John Hartford. I started buying his records in the in the ’60, the ones he was making for RCA where it was his guitar and banjo and fiddle. I love those records, and so I was following John all throughout his career, and then all of a sudden, he’s on the Glen Campbell show. There’s that guy. And of course, one of the records I bought had Gentle On My Mind on it. I was familiar with that song before the Glen Campbell record came out. Then we saw him at a festival and we got to meet him at Bill Monroe’s festival. He played a set with Tut Taylor, Vassar Clements, and Norman Blake, and that just blew the roof off the place. And at that point, I was hooked. I was fortunate to be able to listen to his music. All those records. I’ve got them all.

So in a way, you’ve brought it all full circle.

It’s like Lynn Lynn said. John’s music deserves to be remembered.

And you’re a big part of that now.

Again, I didn’t really set out to do it. It just sort of organically happened. And now that has, I’m happy it did.

You are a very competent one man band.

Well, thank you. It was very time consuming. And and when you’re overdubbing everything by yourself, sometimes you’ll be happy with what you’ve done, but then you put on the next instrument and you find out you have a slight timing problem in one of your other tracks. Sometimes you have to go, okay, now I’ve gotta fix that mistake. Oh, wait, that wasn’t a mistake ’till I did this. Oh, no. All right. So it can be a tough job. Most of the time, you have a  producer who can talk to the artist. But in this case, you’ve got to go to the mirror and talk to yourself. You can drive yourself crazy fixing every mistake. But I’m sure I didn’t fix every mistake.

So what’s coming up for you recording-wise? Do you have another record in the planning stages?

I kind of do. I hope to get back in the studio before the end of the year.

With all that you’ve achieved in your career, all the awards, all the accolades, what’s still on your bucket list? What do you strive for that you have achieved already?

Just getting up tomorrow is a good ambition. Unbelievably to me, I turn 71 this month, and so really, the realistic thing is, I have to work to accommodate aging hands. I know, someday my hands will not want to keep working on the instrument. It’s funny, I’ve never enjoyed playing or singing more than I do now. But it comes with its own challenges. And, of course, as my hands age, I have to keep working on my technique. I’m just still trying to get better with my playing and singing. That’s my goal. When I when I feel like I can’t get any better, I’ll have to take a good look at that and as to when to retire. But I hope it’s a long time from now.

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.